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.
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.
British 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:
The 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.