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British Council struggles to survive as UK cuts cultural relations to 20 countries

The British Government has slashed its funding to the British Council by reducing the so-called Grant-in-Aid, which covers much of the Council’s work on educational development and cultural relations. The money represents just 15% of the Council’s income in its annual report, compared to 56% of the Council’s £1.3 billion turnover generated by English language teaching and exams.

Reports in the UK press that the Council would not have a presence in 20 countries is exaggerated. The Council has confirmed that, while financial difficulties will lead inevitably to cuts in staff and operations, many of the teaching centres and exam services, which are self-funding, will remain open in countries no longer funded by the Government.

“As a result of a ministerial decision, we will no longer be able to spend Grant-in-Aid in as many countries as we do today,” a British Council spokesperson confirmed. “We are still working through what this means for each country.”

However, the spokesperson emphasised that, “Where it is still viable to do so, we aim to continue existing teaching or exam operations in these countries.

Grant-in-Aid programming will cease entirely in 11 countries, including English-speaking Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA. Operations in Afghanistan, where many teachers were left in fear of their lives when the UK Government refused to evacuate them, have already closed.

Exam services and online teaching are currently on-going in Namibia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Belgium. In Uruguay, the Council continues to work through its partner the Instituto Cultural Anglo-Uruguayano. Meanwhile in Chile, the British Council Teaching Centre (visited by Boris Johnson in 2018 – see picture above) is continuing to offer face-to-face teaching.

All Government money to these countries for cultural relations has been cut, but the British Council told the Gazette, “In the future we may also deliver additional cultural relations work, provided these can be funded by other sources.”

“The strategy of operating online, adopted for Grant-in-Aid work in some 
countries, is another cornerstone in the Council’s fight for survival”

In an additional nine countries the Council are proposing that Grant-in-Aid programming will be run remotely from a neighbouring country. These include Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Malta, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Slovakia and Slovenia, where the Council currently runs exam services. In Switzerland, the exam centres are being run by Australia’s IDP.

Unless the British Council continues running exam centres at a profit, the Government faces a dilemma in continuing with its existing migration policy. Currently all migrants to the UK and some international students must take a Secure English Language Test, of which IELTS, with some three million candidates a year, is by far the largest. Exams must be taken in a secure English language test centre, which in the case of IELTS must be run either by the Council or by IDP, one of the world’s biggest language travel agencies, which is – or was until recently – majority owned by a consortium of Australian universities.

Does the UK want all the profits from its immigration testing system to end up in Australia?

The strategy of operating online, adopted for Grant-in- Aid work in some countries, is another cornerstone in the Council’s fight for survival, as their spokesperson makes clear. “We will also be expanding our online opportunities that will be open to everyone with an internet connection. For example, learning English online, taking part in teacher training or visiting a film or arts festival remotely,” they told the Gazette.

Council plans to continue to expand its online language teaching will infuriate many in the UK ELT industry, who see its primary role as a partner with the biggest of the UK’s three extant accreditation schemes, the fourth, ABLS, having folded during the pandemic.

In recent months, many UK schools have called for an alternative to the Council, whose online teaching is seen as “direct competition”.

Industry observers argue that in its fight for survival, the Council cannot surrender its income from 250,000 online learners in order to continue to help run an accreditation scheme delivered at cost. Under current UK immigration rules, English UK members are free to apply for accreditation by BAC or ASIC. This would leave the Council free to run language schools in the UK or, a much more profitable option, bring in children and teachers from its existing overseas summer schools, observers believe.

Meanwhile, the British Council is planning major cutbacks: “Despite everyone’s efforts, we are clear that we will be unable to sustain ourselves financially in the years ahead unless we take further action,” a spokesperson made clear.

“Our estimate is that, sadly, we will need to reduce the overall number of roles across our organisation by around 15- 20% over two years. We will do whatever we can to reduce the number of colleagues impacted.”

Image courtesy of PHOTO BY DAVID LAKE
Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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