The British Council to reform at last?

In recent years the increasingly commercial nature of the British Council, as it has sought to supplement decreasing grants from the treasury, has brought the 80-year old agency into conflict with private companies working in similar fields, but without the government branding, FCO image and advantages enjoyed by the British Council in Embassies and Consulates around the world.

This conflict was identified in the report of the Triennial Review of the British Council, carried out by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and published this summer.

The report was particularly clear about

  • conflicts of interest, where the British Council “acts as an advocate and advisor for other UK providers in fields that are also important sources of its own self generated income”, i.e. the British Council is able to cherry-pick business opportunities that are presented in the course of acting as gatekeeper for UK businesses
  • income generation becoming more important than activities for the public good
  • the limiting of potential opportunities for other UK providers in a growing market where the UK has significant natural advantages
  • Accountability and transparency of its operations

To investigate further the recommendations of the Triennial Review Report, a cross-government steering group has been set up to look into possible solutions.

Levant Education is typical of the companies that work in international education that have suffered from the aggressive commercial approach taken by the British Council. Our education exhibitions, for example, began with some support and a promise of non-competition from the British Council, a promise that was quickly forgotten when the agency saw that the business model was in fact viable. Offers to cooperate and work together on UK HE marketing events fell on deaf ears.

More happily, the FCO steering group, the British Council and Levant Education are looking into options whereby the British Council offers support for UK education providers and UK private companies, without abusing its governmental position for commercial advantage. The steering group has advised Levant Education that it is ‘very much our intention’ to recommend changes to the way the British Council goes into competition for marketing services, rather than signposting existing UK events that do the same job.

It is hoped that a solution is near, one which will make the British Council less of a commercial rival, and more a supporter and portal to UK businesses working to improve UK education marketing reach and recruitment opportunities.

Such a solution, it is expected, will improve trust between the international education sector and the FCO – until now companies engaging with UKTI, for example, have found that they are immediately assisting the business opportunities of the British Council rather than developing their own businesses.

Ultimately, creating more space for private enterprise in the international education sector will benefit UK education providers and exporters, and give the British Council more time to focus on promoting arts and society in accordance with its Royal Charter.

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