The British Council: An Exemplary Charity?

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The British Council (BC) is seen as a government office, a Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) agency, and a charity. This provides 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.

If you want to know more about how the BC’s increasingly aggressive commercial strategy clashes with its role as promoter of UK educational services overseas, I suggest you visit these 2 blogs: Patrick Watson’s Montrose42  and The Language Business by David Blackie.

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Here’s a quote from a post on the Montrose42 blog, Nov.17th 2015.

The British Council had adamantly refused, for many years, and despite regular complaints from other education providers, to accept that its operations in commercial areas represented a conflict of interests, and that it lacked transparency in the  way it ran its commercial operations .  Essentially the BC was competing against other UK providers, while nominally, at least,  it was supposed to be promoting them abroad, aided by taxpayers money and the good offices of our diplomats.  Instead the BC cherry picked the best contracts and competed directly with other UK providers for many others. 

The Triennial Review …stated that the Trustees have not this far been sufficiently active in listening and responding to external stakeholder concerns or understanding and managing conflicts of interest. … We recommend that the British Council operating model be amended in order to increase transparency relating to income generating activity, reducing the potential for conflicts of interest’.

And here’s a quote from a post on Sept. 5th 2102:

There is a broad consensus among UK based education… about the inability of the BC to represent their interests.  The BC behaves like the worst kind of monopoly, and  in consequence  damages UK education interests abroad in a sector where we should have some competitive advantage. It really is that simple. The real shame is that our politicians and civil servants allow  the BC to get away with it. But for how much longer?

Alas, the optimism of that final question has turned out to be unwarranted. Despite the appointment in 2015 of Verita to adjudicate in the complaints process, the BC continues to pursue the same policies.

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This is what David Blackie had to say about the decision to appoint an independent complaints body:

About six years ago I signed up to an “independent” complaints process when the chair of the British Council, Lord Kinnock, contracted a “thorough and independent investigation” from a consultant. The outcome, which took almost a year, was a charade, a disgrace; in all that time the consultant actually spoke to nobody but myself, failed to make contact with the parties about whom I was complaining, did not even mention the specific complaints made or address the pile of evidence in his report, produced no evidence of any kind from the British Council, and without credible basis offered me £10,000 in “expenses”. (Mr. Blackie refused the money.)

…. I’m not saying that Verita can’t do a better job, but a) when a judge is paid by one side and not the other it’s difficult to have much confidence in the process and b) the British Council has not only for years denied acting against the interests of British organisations active in international education, but also has an appalling record of denial, obfuscation and misrepresentation when attempts have been made to make matters better.

The British Council’s use of the word “independent” is, put kindly, idiosyncratic and the reality of fair competition with the British Council is the same: in the purely hypothetical case that the organisation did compete fairly, it would – being fundamentally amateurish and rather better at BS than work – cease to exist. So it can’t compete fairly, and any so called “independent” process that they have contracted will be bound to play along with the British Council’s own “faux-monnayeur” interpretation of that word.

 

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Levant Education

Another insight into how the BC pursues its commercial interests can be got from its treatment of Levant Education.  I recommend a visit to their website where the whole story is recounted, but here’s a taste.  On November 2nd 2016, under the headline

British Council apologises for commercial abuse of Foreign and Commonwealth Office position

we read:

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.

The story starts in 2012 when Levant Education set up UK Education Exhibitions. They paid UKTI for support to enter new markets (Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iraq) and UKTI brought in the British Council to help. Levant Education was charged 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 pay a lot more. Levant Education explain on their website:

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

Far from helping, and despite reassurances to several members of Levant Education, including the owner, David Mitchell, that they wouldn’t dream of abusing their position and the trust placed in them, the BC wasted little time in setting up carbon-copy exhibitions the following year, in Turkey and Azerbaijan. In the words of Levant Education’s blog post:

The British Council used its ‘gatekeeper’ and Foreign and Commonwealth Office personnel & offices to exploit our business and ultimately compete with massive government-brand advantages the private sector could never match.

Levant Education took their concerns to members of the UK parliament, and, giving in to mounting pressure, the British Council asked Verita to investigate. To quote the blog page again:

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 Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its assistance, and secured a promise of non-competition from the British Council Regional Director, Helen Silvestre.

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.

The blog post ends with a statement from Levant Education Managing Director and owner David Mitchell, who says:

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.

The three sources I’ve used here – Patrick Watson, David Blackie, and Levant Education – have on-going concerns about how the British Council  conducts itself as a charity, and they all express the opinion that it will only change its conduct if forced to. By  questioning their representatives wherever and whenever you come across them, including at the IATEFL conference, you can do your bit.

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11 thoughts on “The British Council: An Exemplary Charity?

  1. I think many people attending the conference might be concerned about career prospects if they start asking accusatory questions of the BC, Pearson, IATEFL, etc.

    Are there any bodies out there that can support people who want to stand up to the big wigs without being bullied out of the sector?

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    • Hi Robert,

      Do you really think it’s that bad? I think it’s more a problem of teachers feeling disenfranchised, powerless, even cynical than feeling scared to question the BC. or other institutions.

      To some extent, the BC has done a good job in promoting itself as a well-respected, generally “good thing”, rather like the BBC. They organise the ELTons, they have what looks like a helpful website, and they put on a good show at conferences such as IATEFL. Which is why it’s important to discuss the effects that their aggressive commercial policy has on ELT.

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      • I think networking and career opportunities attracts many people to IATEFL, in which case a number of attendees might be cautious about stirring the hornets nest.

        Not saying it shouldn’t be discussed, but those who do flag it ought to feel that they’re not acting alone.

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  2. I think those of us who can, should speak out. I also think we need to make clear that we’re not against the teachers or staff but the management practices and strategies need to change.

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  3. Apologies for my long-winded post. I just want to second what Marc said. I received an email the other day from someone unnamed who wrote “I used to write for Pearson, for which I will burn in hell”, and it got me thinking about complicity. Some of my black activist friends have said to me, “you know, you white liberals are sometimes part of the problem, and sometimes you need to shut up and listen” – which initially made me get all defensive, but eventually I learned to shut up and listen.
    Maybe I should do that now (and not get defensive) but anyway….

    Let’s imagine a totally fictional tale of a not-so-young TEFL teacher wanting to move to Madrid to be closer to family. TT looks into places to work in Madrid and finds out that most jobs pay peanuts, have no union, involve large amounts of travel around the city, and often include long days with split shifts and 4 hour lunch breaks… But TT finds an organisation that pays okay, has (mostly) block shifts, minimal travel times and a very vocal and active union ready to fight for the T&Cs of Ts.

    Said organisation is a bit shady, but what is a lowly TEFLer to do? Act on principle, or get a job that isn’t totally crummy? Discuss change from within, or snipe from the sidelines?

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    • Hi Ben,

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      In my opinion, we have to speak out against things we believe are wrong, including poor scholarship, bad argument, and some of the results of the commercialisation of education in general and ELT in particular. I think ELT has more problems with the exploitation of workers than most areas of education, and some of the most hypocritical and entrenched institutions running it. As for working for organisations like Peason or your fictitious Madrid organisation, it depends what you do in the job and how you feel doing it.

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      • Yes, I do agree. I guess what I am trying to unpick (and a few of the above comments hint at) is the difficulty of working within and for an industry with such problems. We (lowly) teachers see the hypocrisy, the exploitation, and the poor quality (product based) curriculums. But it is literally our daily bread and primary source of income, and often we have little choice what organisation to work for if we want reasonable wages. What I struggle with is how we can achieve positive change from within without being seen to bite the hand that feeds us.

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  4. Hi again Ben,

    You’re right of course: teachers can’t just say what they think, they have to be careful not to put their jobs at risk. To me, this underlines the need for teachers to get together with their colleagues, join local unions and/or cooperatives, keep pushing in whatever way they can for change.

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  5. On Ben’s comment, I think that feeling guilty about complicity and being responsible for the dodginess of the people you work for are two distinct things, at least as long as there are no or limited alternatives. I’m not sure if this what Ben’s getting at with his hypothetical situation, but the BC in Barcelona is one of the few schools to have a union committee, collective bargaining etc. No teacher could be blamed for wanting to enjoy such conditions. (Disclaimer – I don’t work there)

    This of course does not exempt the BC from criticism regarding its wider status, funding and purpose. However, the biggest complaints here seem to be coming from private capital (Levant Education) and someone who seems to make his living giving consultations to private educational interests (Patrick Watson – apologies if I’ve misinterpreted his “About” page). I’m sure their points about unfair competition are valid, but from the grassroots perspective few would complain if BC were to actually expand its operations, take on more teachers with significantly better rates and conditions than the competition – and would not shed too many tears if some of the private academies went under as a result.

    Unlikely to happen, given that in Barcelona BC operates only at the top end of the market. But in one sense at least they are making a very serious attempt to undercut UK-based businesses in their forays into examinations. Aptis (https://www.britishcouncil.es/en/exam/aptis) certifies your CEFR level for less than half the price of a Cambridge First, CAE or CPE. As soon as more universities start recognising it, Cambridge will find one of their most lucrative markets seriously under threat.

    Should we shed a tear? Or should we rather start brushing up on Aptis to help students prepare for it? After all, they might have a bit more to spend on us now they don’t have to give it all to Cambridge. Or will Ts in fact suffer because the many employed by Cambridge for marking and invigilation purposes would suddenly lose valuable income? Will BC replace those jobs?

    As long as our sector is dominated by private interests – and very peculiar types of interest like the BC – teachers will be at the mercy of machinations way beyond their control. We need to take that control for ourselves and make these institutions less and less relevant. For as long as that remains an ongoing struggle, working for BC (here at least) may be one of the less hellish options around.

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  6. Neil, you’re totally right on ‘taking control’. But that involves one thing – taking control of testing and assessment. Because as long as we farm out testing to outside experts then we farm out control over the profession.

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  7. Yes Paul but how do you square decentralisation with international testing standards? We need something loose enough for local adaptation but general enough to have the across-the-board validity that the current big players are touting. Sorry if this is going off-topic Geoff!

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