With the UK now unpicking itself from membership of the European single market, future PM Nigel Farrage has proclaimed the UK’s new freedom to engage with the wider global economy. The focus for boosting the UK’s international exports will fall on UKTI, the agency for assisting UK businesses in international markets. But can UKTI offer hope for the UK international education sector?
The UK international education sector is not having a good time:
Private English language centres (a vital feeder for UK universities) have suffered a 23% fall in business over the past four years, while Australia has seen an increase in the same period of 43%. Higher Education enrolments from outside of the EU have slowed to 1% compared to the USA 10%, Canada 11% and Australia 8%. The UK’s ‘soft power’ is decreasing, having lost top spot to the USA, and will surely fall further now that it is outside of the world’s largest economy.
Brexit will only compound the sector’s worries, even as courses in the UK are suddenly quite a bit cheaper . The era of visa-free travel to the UK is over, the idea of the UK as a welcoming place to study, already seriously harmed by the anti-immigration rhetoric of the Home Office and sections of the media, will be harder to sell. Erasmus will suffer. UK HE will lose research funding, will become more insular and may well lose top academics to the US and Asia.
A massive effort is needed to promote UK international education providers (schools, colleges, pathway providers, universities); education services (marketing, recruitment,administration), education technology, educational content; and professional training. In the experience of many education and service providers working with UKTI, however, the major problem is the embedded competitor working ‘with’ UKTI and sitting in UK embassies and consulates around the world on the look out for opportunities: the British Council.
As the FCO Triennial Review found in 2014, there are significant issues with the continued existence of the British Council as a competing education business within the FCO, with particular concerns around fair competition, accountability and transparency.
The British Council wears many hats: it is a language school business, a language testing business, an international education marketing business (SIEM), an online english teaching business, a language school accreditor, an education service and support provider… Is it realistic that the BC is expected to ensure that it works ‘for the benefit of all UK providers’?
The BC claims to work in the name of ‘cultural relations and educational opportunities’. These opportunities bring the British Council a staggering £1 billion per year, including a £155 million grant from the UK taxpayer. While the international education sector in the UK struggles, the British Council is raking in over £100k every hour of every day.
Complaints from the sector about the fair competition and other issues usually hit a wall of silence from the FCO and BIS/UKTI. In 2012, a group of UK businesses alerted Lord Green, FCO and UKTI Minister:
“It is the experience of those companies represented here that the BC finds it hard to demonstrate any competitive neutrality. The BC, as a supplier of services in its own right, increasingly competes with other UK providers, with the almost inevitable conflict of interest”.
In Turkey and Azerbaijan, frontier markets for international education, one UK SME has had direct experience of what happens when you engage UKTI (and get the British Council) when developing new projects: Levant Education.
When Levant Education launched ground-breaking UK education marketing services (face-to-face exhibitions with online support) in Azerbaijan and Turkey, it did so with an assurance of non-competition from the British Council, and a paid-for UKTI service to bring in the Ambassador and Embassy support.
The result, to cut a long story short, is this: the BC tapped up our clients during our events, secretly planned a carbon-copy exhibition even while it worked with Levant Education, announced the competing exhibition while posing as a state agency for opportunities, all the while motivated by one selfish goal: to make more money.
While Verita’s ‘independent’ investigation into Levant’s complaints is still ongoing (the British Council pays Verita and is actually not obliged to publish) we will leave that example for now.
But we can say: as long as the British Council is an embedded £1 billion enterprise competing for the same business, with conflicting aims of ‘support’, ‘accreditation’, ‘validation’ and maximising its own commercial revenue, the British Government and UKTI cannot be trusted to promote and support UK education exports.