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.

George Osborne hits out at “anti-business” charities

Charity may well begin at home, but Ministers who bravely encourage others to throw stones at the gilded atriums of charitable enterprise should first take care that they do not themselves live in a house with a massive conservatory hidden round the back.

George Osborne

George Osborne has identified ‘charities’ as a barrier to fair competition in the marketplace,  and has urged companies to defend the economy against their “anti-business views.”

The chancellor called on business leaders to raise their heads “above the parapet” and fight back against charities and others who he said were making arguments against the free market and standing in the way of economic prosperity.

Speaking at the Institute of Directors in London, just yards from the British Council HQ at Spring Gardens, Osborne told the annual convention: “You have to get out there and put the business argument, because there are plenty of pressure groups, plenty of trade unions and plenty of charities and the like, that will put the counter view”.

“It is, I know, a difficult decision sometimes to put your head above the parapet, but that is the only way we are going to win this argument for an enterprising, business, low-tax economy that delivers prosperity for the people and generations to come.

“There is a big argument in our country … about our future, about whether we are a country that is for business, for enterprise, for the free market.”

If George Osborne wants an example of a ‘charity’ standing in the way of fair play and economic prosperity, he doesn’t need to look very far… the Foreign Office, his neighbours in Whitehall, have a real corker.

Is there a ‘charity’ anywhere in the world that is guiltier of anti-business practices than the British Council, the anachronistic government quango / ‘charity’ that pockets a £180 million annual grant from the UK taxpayer, earns from its education businesses a further £750 million without paying a penny in tax, enjoys free use of government facilities and personnel around the world, and is free to exploit its government status, links, and brand for a tidy almost billion pound income at the expense of genuine British companies who lack such privileges?

Levant Education has consistently put its ‘head above the parapet’, and looks forward to the support of Mr Osborne and his pro-business colleagues in the cabinet. We are a prime example of an entrepreneurial company that has seen its seen its business eroded thanks to a taxpayer funded ‘charity’ acting as gatekeeper and supportive government body to begin with, only to then go after that same business without mercy.

As long as the government continues to oblige the British Council to be largely self-financing, encouraging it to compete unfairly against UK education providers and education service companies (education marketing firms, publishers, testing companies, language training providers, etc) how can anyone take Mr Osborne seriously when he talks about winning the argument against anti-business, anti- competitive charities? The treasury and the FCO should lead by example before encouraging others to raise their heads above the parapet.

The good news is that there is currently a further review being undertaken of the British Council by the Foreign Office, after the FCO Triennial Review Report published earlier this year identified unfair competition, remit mission creep, and lack of accountability issues. These issues have resulted in a total lack of trust in UKTI or British Embassy/Consulate services in the eyes of education sector businesses, who have engaged with the FCO in good faith, only to lose any gains to the entrepreneurial, but not-so-charitable-after-allBritish Council.

There is now, therefore, an excellent opportunity for Mr. Osborne and the present government to put its own house in order when it comes to the free market and anti-competitive ‘charities’. 

 

British Council ‘may be anticompetitive’, claims FCO review

As readers who have followed Levant Education’s progress in the past couple of years will know, we have continually faced an unethical, unfair competitor that has gone after the business that we established in Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iraq, Kurdistan.

At every step, the British Council acted as a supportive ‘charity’, only to then exploit the business opportunities we created with the ‘help’ of UK government agencies.  

We are far from seeing an end to the unfair business practices, the abuse of taxpayer funding, the commercial exploitation of government offices, the tax avoidance, and exploitation of private businesses that go to the British government for assistance with international market penetration. The suggestions that a new ‘government-owned’ business reporting to the BC/FCO would only perpetuate the uneven playing field for education providers, language testing and education marketing companies …but there is light at the end of the tunnel. 

Levant Education and companies all over the UK will continue to campaign for a fair crack at international education business that for years now has been cherry picked (or stolen) by a British government agency.

education investor

The British Council must be overhauled to prevent it competing unfairly with UK education businesses abroad, a government review has argued.

The ‘Triennial Review of the British Council’, published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) yesterday, claims the council makes a significant contribution to the UK’s international reputation through its promotion of UK education, the arts and English language worldwide.

But it also found conflicts of interest in the way it “acts as an advocate and advisor for other UK providers in fields that are also important sources of its own self generated income”.

The council, a public body with a Royal Charter and charitable status, now earns nearly 80% of its income independently by selling English language training and other educational services. This is sometimes in direct competition with British businesses.
“There are some grounds for concern that the organisation could be limiting potential opportunities for other UK providers in a growing market where the UK has significant natural advantages,” states the review.

In response, it says the council must overhaul is operating model by more clearly separating “income-generating activities and those for purely public benefit”. This could involve:

(i) internal administrative separation, including financial reporting, that increases transparency of commercial activity and its relationship with other areas of British Council work and income streams;

(ii) establishment of a government owned company for income-generating activity, reporting to the FCO or another government entity;

(iii) establishment of a commercial, legal entity for income generating activity (such as for example a community interest company), with its own board of directors, reporting to the main British Council board.

Patrick Watson of Montrose Public Affairs welcomed the review. “There have always been concerns expressed by education providers directly to ministers that the British Council operates with a unfair advantage in the market.

“Providers have been unsure of the rules of engagement – when is the council working with them in partnership to promote British education interests, and when is it competing with them to secure commercial deals for itself.”

David Blackie, managing director of International Education Connect, which runs the course listings site English in Britain, said the review was “not radical enough to satisfy those who the council competes with”, but a “step in the right direction”.

“If the recommendations are carried out and acted upon with zeal there will be a new culture within the organisation,” he said.

Sir Vernon Ellis, chair of the British Council said: “We agree that our significant growth and the increased importance and complexity of our relations with government and other stakeholders has given rise to a number of important issues that need to be addressed.

A cross-government steering group will begin assessing the review’s recommendations this month.
Source: Education Investor, July 23 2014. 

Time to Cull the British Council

Is the British Council an Evil Corporation?

Time for a cull

The British Council is an anachronistic unaccountable quango…it’s time for a cull

Time for a cull

Along with many UK private companies providing marketing services to international education providers, Levant Education often runs into a thorny political issue that we’re somehow not supposed to talk about.

That issue is the commercial, entrepreneurial activities of the British Council, a Non Departmental Public Body (NDPB, or quango), whose size, status and ambition create an unfair playing field in the sector.

The British Council often pretends to support UK companies’ efforts to promote UK education internationally, when in reality it competes for that business itself. So fair competition is virtually impossible, as small specialist companies (with the potential to make a real difference) are squeezed out.

As a competitor for Levant Education’s business (in Turkey, Azerbaijan and Kurdistan they followed us into the market), the British Council benefits from advantages we couldn’t dream of – £175 million from the taxpayer, government branding, as well as a network of ambassadorial staff and facilities that are impossible to ring-fence between what is charitable and what is commercial. In all 3 markets, the British Council sheepishly spoke of cooperation as we took the risks to establish the business, only to then wolfishly go after that same business for itself.

We do not pay our taxes for the government to pay quangos to go into business against legitimate UK companies, with huge commercial / tax advantages. Whatever the rationale was for establishing the British Council back in the 1930’s, the world has moved on.

Naive man goes to the House of CommonsAn eternal optimist and believer in the democratic process, I took the complaint to the House of Commons, with MP for Mid Derbyshire Pauline Latham OBE. Among other issues, Pauline is known for supporting the culling of badgers…what would she think of the way the British Council threatens healthy competition in the field of international education?

The MP agreed that the British Council’s behavior needed looking into, and tabled a parliamentary question. Secretary of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs, Hugo Swire, answered the question, drawing attention to the Triennial Review of the British Council that he had announced on 16th July 2013. This Review would look at the continuing logic for maintaining the quango, and address “competition questions relating to British Council income generation activity.” The resulting report would be published “in early 2014”. (reponse_hugo_swire)

The complaint was also put to UKTI, which often (misguidedly) brings in the British Council in cases where UK education companies pay for export assistance abroad, as Levant Education has. The investment in UKTI assistance is subsequently wasted, as the business generated from the activity falls into the lap of the entrepreneurial British Council.

In a letter to Levant Education, Lord Green, at the time outgoing Minister of State (Trade & Investment), also deflected the question by referring to the ongoing Triennial Review (we now await the view of Baron Livingstone of Parkhead, also known as Ian, who now serves in that role).

So far so good for the British democratic process. In the markets where we operate, people can only dream of such openness of government, efficiency and access to parliamentary procedure in defence of individual freedoms. In Turkey I’d probably get a punch in the face for even trying…if I was lucky.

Not only are our MP’s quick to help and put our concerns to the right people, government has a system to ensure that NDPB’s / quangos are answerable to parliament and regular reviews are undertaken resulting in published reports.  Such examples of public accountability strengthen our democracy and show our system of government in a good light, which it could certainly do with.

What is a Triennial Review? 

Triennial Reviews are part of the democratic oversight process of Non Departmental Public Bodies (NDPB’s). The Reviews keep the NDPB’s / quangos accountable and ensure they remain useful and relevant.

According to Government guidance, published by the Cabinet Office,

“One of the founding principles of the reviews is transparency. The guidance stipulates that the review itself should be open and transparent, and that a report must be published at the end of the review that details the evidence and rationale for decisions about the body’s future. Departments publish these reports online and announce their publication to Parliament”.

In a further advisory, the cabinet office stipulates, “all reviews should be completed quickly and all reports of reviews should be published”.

Specifically on announcing results of the reviews, the Cabinet Office advice says

12.1 As a minimum, Departments should announce the outcomes of reviews by Written Ministerial Statement. This should be in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. 

12.2 The results of reviews should be published. Copies should be placed in the Libraries of the House. A copy of the announcement and of all relevant publications should also be made available to the relevant departmental select committee.

So that’s clear then – reports must be announced and published. The Review about the BC was undertaken in a timely fashion, lead by Mr Graham Glover at the FCO. Evidence was taken from a wide range of stakeholders, and the public was invited to give evidence though an online survey.

Openness, transparency, accountable, timely – the British way! No hiding place for those that would seek to hide from democratic accountability!

And yet…

Here we are in May 2014, with no sign of the report…

Thanks to the vigilance of David Blackie of International Education Connect Ltd, we know exactly what has gone wrong. The Board of the British Council has received the report, but its Chief Executive Martin Davidson doesn’t want to share it – not with the House of Commons, not with the House of Lords, and not with the British public who pay his £190,000 salary and associated expenses.

Mr. Glover and his team spent 3 months on the Review, listened to hundreds of stakeholders and received much evidence. Any mortal quango would by now have complied with the principled guidance of the British government and published…but not the British Council.

If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.

The Discussion Paper of the Review opens with the words of William Hague, British Foreign Secretary. “It is the duty of any government to ensure that all public bodies perform as effectively and efficiently as possible.” It ends with the words “the Review Team will decide on the content and recommendations of the final report”.

But Mr. Davidson thinks he knows better. In his words, he describes the final report as “an initial draft”, which is “very very long.” Apparently the report needs to be redacted, and no doubt sexed up, to produce a happier ending (happier for the BC and all those at Grade E and above who are trying to award themselves pay rises...).

Such behaviour may be common in the ‘democracies’ of  Turkey and Central Asia, but this is the British government, and the British Council, we are talking about.  How is it possible that the British Council and Mr. Davidson are free to suppress / redact / edit an independent report into their organisation, when the government guidance so clearly states that the “open and transparent” Review should “provide a robust challenge of the continuing need for individual NDPB’s – both their functions and form.”

Could it be that the Report is a little too robust about the continuing need for taxpayers to keep underwriting a billion pound marketing, teaching and language testing business (that pays no tax)? Most probably…but we’re not allowed to see the report until Mr Davidson has made it much, much shorter.

Do the principles of openness, accountability, transparency and democratic oversight not apply to Martin Davidson or the British Council?

Anybody..?

 

The British Council is Bad for Business, Bad for British Education Exports, and Bad for Britain

As education marketing and student recruitment professionals working around the globe are all too aware, the British Council is increasingly acting as a commercial competitor – rather than as a regulator / accreditor / supporter –  in a manner that is bad for our business. The ‘entrepreneurial’ actions of the British Council are actually harmful to the professionalism and effectiveness of student recruitment to the UK, and are injurious to the proud British principle of entrepreneurial enterprise free from government interference.

There is always, of course, a role for government bodies in the regulation and support of the private sector. Accreditation gives the consumer confidence in the product – for example the inspection of English language courses and schools by the British Council and English UK helps ensure the UK has the highest standards of language teaching in the world.  Career Development Programmes help maintain professional standards in a diverse language teaching sector.

The size and importance of the Higher Education and language training market have never been bigger, with the international students said to be worth over £15 billion to the UK economy alone. Internationally education and training is a fully developed industry with thousands of providers serviced by hundreds of thousands of suppliers (of students, i.e. study abroad agencies).  UK schools and universities are global competitors for the business of providing education and training to the world’s young and young at heart.

Support not competition

What is required in such a market is a lively and competitive private sector of agencies, marketers, consultants, advertisers, counselors and industry experts. At government level, what is required is support, not interference or competition.

For British companies or companies based in the UK, a British government agency having a commercial interest in the market for international advertising, marketing and recruitment services represents a massive conflict with the principle that the government is supposed to support business, rather than compete as a commercial undertaking in our sector. This conflict is never as apparent as when a UK education company pays for UKTI support in a market, and ends up working with the British Council – ultimately losing business as a result.

For small and medium-sized specialist education marketing companies around the world, the British Council represents unwelcome (foreign) government interference, which often have enough on their plates at a time when business environments are especially challenging.

Level the Playing Fields

While the global sector for these services is competitive and lively, the British Council wherever it operates is trading on the good name of the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office to compete unfairly. The British Council benefits from UK government image, government personnel (Ambassadors and Consul Generals) and government offices (Embassies and Consulates) for competitive advantage that private sector companies cannot match. Taxpayers, tax liability,  charitable status – let’s not even go there.

Consequently, the British Council creates an uneven playing field in the markets where it gets involved commercially. Worse, where the private sector is already meeting demand for these services, the entrance of the British Council turns the market on its head, causing confusion between existing providers and this seemingly ‘official’ option.

Competition welcome

In our competitive international markets, it is not that more competition is unwelcome. Competition based on quality of service and expertise is what drives our industry forward. But with the best will in the world, transient civil servants do not make the best marketers or business consultants in the modern international education sector. The British Council may be “on the ground in six continents and over 100 countries bringing international opportunity to life, every day”…but global coverage is no guarantee of local expertise or know-how. Indeed, it is often quite the opposite.  British Council or other civil servants have very little to teach those who are specialists in international education marketing.

When it comes to in-market exhibitions, many UK institutions cling to the hope that the British Council’s taxpayer-funded brand will attract more students to the UK education exhibitions. They often fail to realise that their own brand has far more marketing potential and is a much more important investment than spending marketing funds on promoting the British Council’s name and commercial products (teaching, testing) in international markets.

Needless Bureacracy

Furthermore, the existence of another layer of bureaucracy between UK education providers and global markets often blunts the message rather than helping it hit home. For example, when many UK and US universities were randomly cut from a list of approved institutions for government-sponsored students from Azerbaijan, the US universities were quickly re-instated after an intervention from the US Ambassador in Baku, while UK universities pinned their hopes on the office of the British Council. Needless to say, the removed universities remain removed, and are still none the wiser at the time of writing.

Soft Power?

In a committee that met at the House of Lords on Monday 21st October, Ambassadors to the UK from Brazil, Germany, Norway and Japan gave their views on the role of ‘soft power’.  Their answers will not have pleased the British Council, which is increasingly claiming a ‘soft power’ role to justify its commercial activities. While the British Council claims arts promotion, education marketing, language teaching and testing as part of the global war for influence – a battle in funky jumpers instead of flak jackets – the international ambassadors were more skeptical about ‘soft power’ as a defined policy instrument.

Here’s a summary of what they said: (full transcript available)

adam_rudolphDr Rudolf Adam, Chargé d’Affaires, Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany:
“Government’s role is to set standards and norms, not just technical but also legal. We believe in leaving business & industry to those that know it best and have a stake in the benefits, or who risk the costs”.

brazilambMr. Roberto Jaguaribe, Ambassador of Brazil
“Government should not try to control aspects of soft power. For example, if the White House were to control aspects of Hollywood, it would lose its appeal. Private enterprise generates positive perceptions that can be beneficial. The degree to which a government respects democracy and human rights can help generate influence and create role models”.

ambjapMr. Keichi Hayashi, Ambassador of Japan
“Our primary focus as a foreign mission is on our country’s economic interests: promoting trade, providing a model of pacifist foreign policy. We do not have an agency for ‘soft power’. Our image and ‘good will’ benefit from the promotion of our economic interests, through the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Ministry of Trade”.

ambnorMr Kim Traavik, Ambassador of Norway
“A key component of ‘soft power’ is credibility. National policies must be credible, and soft power will be a natural end-result. By following policies of conflict resolution, for example, by acting as a force for peace, soft power is a coincidental result of our policies. We do not have an official policy on soft power – the character of our society defines our policies and results in our national image”.

The conclusion that we draw from having followed the activities of the British Council in the past 3 years; from having attempted to cooperate with the British Council only to be taken advantage of; from having suffered from their aggressive commercial practices carried out under the name of the FCO; from having lobbied the government about level playing fields and government agencies; and from following the arguments about ‘soft power’ that are ongoing – our conclusion is that the British Council operates in a manner that is bad for British business, and that is bad for British education exports.

By acting against both British commercial interests, and foreign companies around the world, the British Council is actually bad for the image of the UK as a free country where the rights of businesses to be free from government interference are respected.

It is, therefore, not even a useful ‘instrument of soft power’…or a particularly good reflection of the character of our society.

This is an opinion piece, based on our experience. We’d love to know what you think… Please click below to contribute an anonymous vote. Further comments are welcome, and you don’t have to leave your name.

Note: An FCO Review Team is looking at the British Council as part of a triennial review that will publish in early 2014. UK Education Tour returns to Baku this Saturday with a strong cohort of British universities.

British Council Baku Exhibition targets Filipinos

Readers interested in the activities of the British Council in Azerbaijan will be aware that the bungling branch of the British FCO in Baku decided to actually do something for the first time in 20 years, spurred into action after witnessing Levant Education’s UK Education Tour last November. Invited to participate in the event in a spirit of mutuality, they approached the UK university exhibitors to tap them up for a rival event to be launched in 2013.

Reassuringly for Levant Education and the UK Education Tour (back in Baku next week), we again have a strong line up of UK universities, including UCL, Manchester, Warwick, Birmingham and Sheffield, who have a full programme of institution visits, an Alumni & VIP reception at the British Embassy, and UK exhibition and seminars.

The time has come for the British Council to promote their event, and collect registrations. Interestingly, data being requested from registering students includes ‘first language’, with the options being Chinese, English, Filipino, French, Japanese, Korean and Spanish.

bc_secondlanguage_web

All common first (or second) languages in Azerbaijan, bien sur! We’d have gone for Azeri or Russian, but what do we know?!

The ‘how did you hear about us’ answers also reveal that part of their marketing campaign includes advertising on ‘clickthecity.com’ – an out-and-about website for those out-and-about in … Manila, Philippines.

bc_howdidyouhear

It’s always good to be reminded that the British Council isn’t really malicious, just incompetent. Or just maybe the power of the BC brand will work its magic, and exhibitors at their Azerbaijan event in November will be deluged by enquiries from Filipinos!

Is the British Council an Evil Corporation?

BCevilbanner

The British Council, the registered UK charity described by MP John Mann in 2011 as ‘a nonsense of an organisation to sustain‘, has looked to be on the ropes for the past few years.

In its fight for survival, while the state and its ministries shrink and reduce funding for everything from health care to higher education, the British Council has adapted an increasingly aggressive ‘entrepreneurial’ approach, taking advantage of the vague definition of its role in promoting cultural relations. Its self-edited remit now includes building ‘educational relationships‘, the vagueness of which nicely covers a range of services it can charge fees for to UK education institutions.

This entrepreneurial approach has resulted in the total commercialisation of the British Council, to the point where it competes (unfairly, bearing in mind its FCO status) with UK plc, specifically English language training companies, language test providers, and international marketing service providers to UK education.

Should the British Council become a commercial competitor simply on the grounds that it needs the money? My reading of the 1998 Competition Act leads me to believe that the British Council is violating UK law on fair trading for public bodies – it is hardly a level playing field where the British Council sits in FCO Embassies and Consuls, doesn’t pay tax or UKTI OMIS fees, and operates with all the cache that being a department of Her Majesty’s Government brings. It is the equivalent of the Police looking to raise more cash by competing in the private security sector.

Should a government agency compete with those whose interests they’re set up to serve? UK company Levant Education has always approached the British Council in the spirit of cooperation, having been prompted to do so by UKTI, another UK government department that we have paid for market entry advice (for example in Azerbaijan). And the British Council has reacted by competing for our business.

If the British Council is an honest broker and a showcase for UK education, how can they rightfully take money from UK schools and universities to give them preferential treatment and exposure (for example on the Education UK website, through Education UK fairs, or through market advisory consultation)?

On top of  the unfair business practices, the competition disadvantaging UK plc, and taking advantage of its role for commercial gain, the British Council has recently joined the likes of Google and Starbucks in appointing a global tax expert to help manage its tax affairs more efficiently. That’s right – a UK taxpayer funded agency that will pay a fortune for an ex-Deloittes / PWC man to help it pay tax more efficiently..!

And here’s the latest news: the British Council preferred to protect the image of the Turkish Government last year, when Levant Education tried to advise UK language training providers of the business and legal ‘peculiarities’ of working in Turkey  (we thought people should be aware of these things before engaging in doing business there).

To summarise the situation: the registered charity ‘British Council’ competes in the international education sector to the detriment of UK companies; takes advantage of its governmental role of building ‘soft power’ to generate revenue from teaching English and providing English tests; makes money out of its role of honest broker and UK education showcase by charging for marketing services; seeks to avoid paying tax on its £1000 million revenues; and suppresses information about the business and legal environments in countries when pretending to offer advice it didn’t write about operating in such countries.

All of which begs the question: Is the British Council an Evil Corporation?