British Council apologises for commercial abuse of FCO position

The British Council has issued an apology for a ‘lapse’ that saw it take advantage of Levant Education’s business and collaboration with the FCO in Azerbaijan to launch its own competing offer in the same market.

What happens when a UK private enterprise seeks (and pays for) support from the British government in new markets? If that company is in the business of international education, it is likely to find that it has flashed up on the radar of an aggressive, state-funded competitor.

In 2012 UK education company Levant Education commissioned support from UKTI, the FCO and the British Council to launch UK-focussed education fairs in Azerbaijan, after successfully launching similar events in Turkey. That support cost Levant Education thousands of pounds for UKTI/FCO facilities (the event reception was hosted at the UK Embassy, where the Ambassador spoke to a specially invited audience) and would go on to cost a lot more.

UK in Azerbaijan Ambassador Irfan Siddiq
UK in Azerbaijan Ambassador Irfan Siddiq

At the reception, and subsequently at the exhibition itself the next day, British Council staff quietly approached the university representatives who had joined the ground-breaking event. As BC ‘Head of HE and Education Services’ Gordon Slaven’s apology admits, they “used the opportunity to enquire into participants interest in a possible British Council exhibition.”

During the ‘independent’ investigation conducted by Verita (paid for by the British Council…) in London, British Council staff admitted that they had been under pressure to identify ways to increase revenue and make more money in 2012, as the government grant was being cut. That drive to be more commercially aggressive is what undoubtedly pushed BC staff to abuse its FCO status in Azerbaijan to gain unfair competitive advantage, going into direct competition with a private enterprise that had both paid the FCO for its assistance, and secured a promise of non-competition from the British Council Regional Director, Helen Silvestre.

Wolf In Sheep's ClothingBritish Council SIEM (Services for International Education Marketing) products – exhibitions, market reports, online marketing – were launched in Azerbaijan in 2013, following Levant Education’s first successful exhibition. The British Council is seen as a government office, an FCO agency, and a charity – useful branding and cover for its lucrative commercial operations that generate £1 billion every year, tax-free, from IELTS testing, English teaching, Education Marketing and education related contracts.

The Verita investigation uncovered incredible duplicity from British Council staff in Baku and Istanbul. While working with Levant Education on its new project, in apparent harmony and good humour, they were simultaneously working to duplicate the event and sell the idea to UK universities and education providers.

Levant Education Managing Director and owner David Mitchell writes:

sb_exhibit_oct16fThe British Council’s recently introduced ‘Independent Complaints Process’ has failed its first test since a critical Foreign & Commonwealth Office Triennial Review highlighted competition and accountability issues in 2014.

The Council has half-heartedly apologised for its blatant hijacking of our business in Azerbaijan. However the Verita investigation report was carried out as a paid-for service for the British Council, covering up more than it revealed. The final report skates over unfair competition issues, provides for no accountability for Management decisions taken in Istanbul and Baku, and goes to great lengths to ‘blame the victim’ – bizarrely finding that Levant Education was in some way to blame because it later dared to publicly complain about the BC’s dishonest behaviour.

The report also fails to address the financial impact on Levant Education: between money invested in the project, fees to UKTI/the FCO, and lost earnings due the unfair state competition, Levant has lost a six figure sum after making the mistake of trusting the FCO, UKTI and British Council.

Levant Education will be seeking a review from the parliamentary ombudsman, and seeking legal advice also. A genuine investigation needs to be conducted by an independent body, rather than a paid-for public relations service on behalf of the government agency. The British Council should not be allowed to compete for competitive commercial services while disguised as a government agency/FCO department/charitable concern. The BC’s actions in Azerbaijan, and in Turkey (where it also ignored promises made in regards to fair competition) were dishonest, anti-competitive and devious. The apology is a start, but once again the British Council has been shown to be more concerned about commercial gain and face-saving PR than about accountability, transparency or fair competition.

Can UKTI save UK International Education?

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.

The British Council: Transparency

British Council redactedIt’s nearly 2 years since a Foreign & Commonwealth report, following a root and branch Triennial Review concluded that their were serious concerns around commercial accountability, financial transparency, conflicts of interest and fair competition with the private sector.

Since the review the British Council has made efforts to improve transparency, stating on its website that it is ‘fully committed to transparency in our decision-making processes, how we work and the programmes and services we provide. Transparency is an important aspect of the British Council’s accountability to the UK public, Parliament and the people who participate in our programmes and projects‘.

Part of that transparency is to publish the minutes of its Board of Trustees meetings. At the time of writing, they hadn’t got round to this yet in 2016, so we should look back to 2015 to see how the Council’s commitment to transparency is going. Here are some highlights:

  • Chair’s Business

Information in this section has been redacted/removed as it is likely to be exempt from disclosure on the grounds that it is “likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs” as defined in Section 36 (Prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000*.

  • Triennial Review

Information in this section has been redacted/removed as it is likely to be exempt from disclosure on the grounds that it is “likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs” as defined in Section 36 (Prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000*.

  • Status Resolution: Macau

Tax Avoidance

The Board approved a resolution to authorise the British Council’s branch in Hong Kong to register with the Macau Tax Department. The resolution was proposed by Usha Prashar and seconded by Gareth Bullock.

  • Examinations: Secure English Language Testing (SELT)

Hammond and May

Mark informed the Board that the IELTS consortium of Cambridge Assessment, IDP and British Council has been named by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) as a preferred bidder for one of two SELT concessions for testing within the UK, and for one of either one or two concessions for testing in the rest of the world. He also corrected the figures in the paper which should read that the potential additional income is R£DACTED

  • COO Report

Information in this section has been redacted/removed as it is likely to be exempt from disclosure on the grounds that it is “likely to prejudice the commercial interests” of either the British Council or another party, as it is defined in Section 43 (Commercial interests) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000*.

  • Report from the Audit CommitteeThe risk reserve had been cut by £4million as the Committee had agreed that risks from tax exposure had been reduced the Global Finance Change Programme was on track:Information in this section has been redacted/removed as it is likely to be exempt from disclosure on the grounds that it is “likely to prejudice the commercial interests” of either the British Council or another party, as it is defined in Section 43 (Commercial interests) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000*.

    New entities for our operation in Russia

Information in this section has been redacted/removed as it is likely to be exempt from disclosure on the grounds that it is “likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs” as defined in Section 36 (Prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000*.

  • Any other business Information in this section has been redacted/removed as it is likely to be exempt from disclosure on the grounds that it is “likely to prejudice the commercial interests” of either the British Council or another party, as it is defined in Section 43 (Commercial interests) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000*.

So, about as transparent as REDACTED then. 

The British Council: Conflicts of interest

The British Council and ‘clarity of purpose’

Wolf In Sheep's Clothing

In the 2014 Triennial Review report about the British Council, another area of concern for the FCO is ‘clarity of purpose’, or conflict of interest in plain English.

In its Corporate Plan, the British Council claims to create value for the UK by:

  • Creating introductions, connections and business opportunities for UK organisations, social enterprises and businesses, helping them to learn from overseas engagement.

UK companies in international education (a sector estimated to be worth $6.3 trillion globally) can turn to ‘UKTI Education’ for assistance. FCO Minister of State, Hugo Swire, points out that the FCO and British Council support UKTI in promoting UK education exports.

Mr Swire writes, in a letter to Levant Education, that “UKTI and the British Council now share opportunities worth more than £100k with the wider international education sector.”

£100k is about half of what cooperation with UKTI and the British Council has cost Levant Education, one Small Enterprise, since agreeing to work together in 2012. It is also a tiny fraction of the Council’s £1 billion annual income.

The British Council earns £100k every hour of every day – £100k is the crumbs that fall from the British Council’s table to the ‘wider international education sector’.  

What Levant Education and many others* have learnt is this: For UK SME’s and entrepreneurs in international education engaging UKTI to help in international markets, the British Council will indeed step in to ‘support’. If the export project is successful and set to provide a return on investment for the SME, the British Council will then exploit its position to channel those business opportunities for itself, quickly snuffing out competition from the SME that created the project in the first place.

Conflict of interest is the nice term for this behaviour…  If the British Council is serious about helping to create opportunities for UK businesses, working with UKTI, it must cease to compete with those same UK businesses, for those same business opportunities. 

 

*for example, a group of UK companies tried, in vain, to seek address for the problem with Lord Green at BIS and the FCO in 2012:

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.

Although the BC provides the clearest example there is a widespread perception that a number of other grant-funded, quasi government agencies and organisations are also beginning to present market conflicts and issues. These agencies are not competitively neutral and there is no level playing field when it comes to their operations and practice abroad. They significantly increase, especially during competitive procurement, the costs and risks for others both those already participating in as well as those considering and entering the market. These agencies are also perceived to have access to more current information, support and contacts abroad than other non-subsidised, commercial providers. This latter issue has been a long standing complaint common to most providers, and thus far, successive Governments have failed to address or recognise it.

Neil McIntosh, Chief Executive, CfBT Education Trust

Graham Able, CEO, Alpha Plus Group

David Blackie, Managing Director, International Education Connect Ltd

Barry Brooks, Group Strategy Director, Tribal Group

Marian Brooks, Executive Director, Mott MacDonald, Cambridge Education

Andrew Fitzmaurice, CEO, Nord Anglia Plc

Ian Hunt, Managing Director, Gabbitas

Simon Lebus, Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment

Kevin McNeany, Chairman, Orbital Education Ltd

Peter Miller, President Learning Solutions, Pearson International

Professor James Tooley, EG West Centre, Newcastle University

Unfair Competition and the British Council

Thank you for following the link and for your support in addressing unfair competition from the government agency / entrepreneurial business known as the British Council. 

I am compiling the experiences of genuinely entrepreneurial UK companies that have come up against competition from the British Council, while acting as part of the FCO and often presented as a supportive agency for UK companies looking to grow in international markets.

In our own example, Levant Education set up UK Education Exhibitions and paid for support from UKTI to enter new markets (Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iraq) which brought in the British Council to ‘assist’. Despite assurances that they would not seek to compete, they ‘cooperated’ with our projects for a short time before setting up carbon-copy exhibitions the following year, in Turkey and Azerbaijan. Only war and financial problems in Kurdistan prevented them from doing the same there.

The British Council used its ‘gatekeeper’ and FCO personnel & offices to exploit our business and ultimately compete with massive government-brand advantages the private sector could never match. This is fundamentally an issue of unfair competition and conflict of interest, as has been identified in the 2014 FCO Triennial Review.

The stories will be used to create a record of the BC’s unfair and predatorial business practices, and may be used to inspire journalists to investigate the uneven playing field we face in the international education sector.

 

Please keep the stories as concise as possible. They will be added to this website and if used in any other way, we will contact you for approval.

 

 

 

Is the British Council ‘Entrepreneurial’?

orwellIn 1946 George Orwell warned authors against making money from writing propaganda for bodies such as the British Council, deeming such work a waste of creative energy. Nonetheless, in recent times, it seems that those writing propaganda for the Council’s commercial activities have been reading Orwell’s novel ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’.

 

When defending its aggressive commercial plans and arguing for continued grant-in-aid funding from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), the British Council has sought praise for its ‘entrepreneurial‘ model of public sector finance.

Think of the word entrepreneurial and terms like ‘risk taking’, ‘new venture’, ‘private finance’, ‘creative’ and innovation’ come to mind. Let’s compare British Council with a genuine UK business to see which truly represents the spirit of entrepreneurialism:

The British Council

  1. The British Council doesn’t have to worry about start up costs or financing: it is underwritten by the taxpayer to the tune of £160 million per year. It commercially exploits its government branding and facilities, and is largely unaccountable.
  2. The British Council is a government agency with a government brand, funded by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom, with a related political agenda.
  3. The British Council has the instant support of Ambassadors, Consul Generals and UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) offices around the world to support its business, at no cost, to the detriment of fair competition. Any education / training company approaching UKTI/FCO for international assistance will be asked to work with a competing organisation – the British Council.
  4. The British Council pays no tax, thanks to its ‘charity‘ status and a complex network of international business entities that makes Starbucks envious.
  5. British Council employees (whether working for the public good or on BC cash generating business) benefit from a full Civil Service Pension scheme, paid for by the British taxpayer.
  6. The British Council stifles competition by using its government brand, taxpayer funding, tax-avoiding global network of companies, and government FCO privileges to maximise income from its marketing, events and language businesses.

Levant Education

  1. Levant Education was started using the private savings of its Director, David Mitchell, after 10 years spent working in International Education marketing. Every project or venture it undertakes must take account of the business risk and customer satisfaction.
  2. Levant Education is a British company, working to build a brand based on quality events, marketing & recruitment, and education projects in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Iran. It is a private limited company, independent of the UK government, working closely with governments where it is active, for example in Azerbaijan.
  3. Levant Education pays UKTI for overseas market introduction services (OMIS), which unavoidably brings-in the British Council team in that market. The British Council then shamelessly goes after our business for itself.
  4. Levant Education pays tax in the UK as a registered UK company.
  5. Levant Education employs and pays its employees with no state benefits required.
  6. Levant Education competes in its sector on a fair and even playing field – one which the British Council distorts and exploits.

Is the British Council ‘entrepreneurial‘? Only in a world where 2 + 2 = 5, Freedom is Slavery, and

Entrepreneurialism

=

Monopolistic, Unaccountable,
State-Sponsored, Unfair Trade

UK Government Gamekeeper Turns Poacher Once Again

One of the main criticisms levelled at the British Council over the years, and highlighted recently in the Triennial Review Report about the BC’s activities, is the conflict of interest inherent in an organisation that promises to represent UK education and promote the interests of schools and universities abroad, while at the same time providing education courses, tests, and services itself.

As any international education company (test providers, course providers, marketing service providers) that has tried to enter a new market will know, you may have FCO and UKTI support if you pay the OMIS fees, but you will certainly have the British Council waiting in the wings to see if there is any interesting business it can exploit.

The latest shocking example of this comes, once again, in Azerbaijan.

The British Council organised a UK Education Fair in early November, turning down offers to work with the existing one (organised by Levant Education), so creating a second UK education fair in what is quite a small market.

Part of the organisation included a UK-AZ ‘speed-networking’ session, for UK providers to meet with Azerbaijani universities to explore potential cooperation and joint programme ventures. What the British Council did not mention in its ‘market briefing’ (which otherwise talked quite a lot about the British Council’s services) was that one of the juiciest contracts had already been signed between the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy (ADA) and… the British Council.

Any number of UK universities or private providers would jump at the chance to work with ADA in the provision of pre-sessional English courses for students…given the opportunity.

The British Council will provide language courses and IELTS testing on the campus of ADA, but the ambitions of the project do not stop there, according to Gary Brooks, the Teaching Centre Manager.

“We want to enter the market in Baku with an extra advantage. So, having the branding of both the British Council and the ADA University, I think, immediately has made a standout (sic)”.

ada-bc

In Baku, Gary tells us, there are “lots of interesting business opportunities. The British Council and the ADA University English language Center wants to be involved in this area as much as possible. We can offer something to other businesses, professionals and people in Baku”.

Quite the aggressive business plan, exploiting the government brand to the full but of course in no way detrimental to UK or local businesses in the same field, and in every way a sound investment for the UK taxpayer…

If the Foreign Office, UKTI and Ernst & Young – who are currently looking at the business model of the British Council – achieve anything, it is hoped it will be to prevent this UK government agency from acting as gamekeeper in areas where it hungrily eyes the game. Until then, the rest of us might as well hang up our boots.