The British Council: ‘It could do better’

Bitter sweet praise has been heaped on the British Council (BC) by the Committee of Public Accounts (CPA) for their work in promoting the English language and UK culture abroad.

The CPA published its 56th annual report on the BC evaluating its progress and the impact it is having globally.

Edward Leigh, chairman of the PAC said: “Our committee congratulates the British Council on its achievements in promoting overseas, sometimes in difficult circumstances, the English language and the UK’s culture.”

The BC is a registered charity which aims to build relationships with the UK and other countries by teaching English, running cultural projects and spreading awareness of British culture through the arts.

However the BC has been criticised for their radical change from country specific projects to focussing on regions and has also shifted from Europe to the Middle East and Asia, reflecting UK international priorities.

Mr Leigh added: “Standardised regional products might not be sufficiently tailored to circumstances in individual countries, bringing the risk of the Council’s jeopardising its local contacts.

“This move to regional projects has contributed towards the year-on-year decline in the amount of money received from sponsorship and partners. The programme of change, which has also involved the closure of offices in Europe and the move of resources to the Middle East and Asia to reflect new UK international priorities, has damaged staff morale. The Council would do well to speak to its staff and listen to their views.”

This shift in the council to conform to UK international priorities has led to closures of offices in Europe and a reduction in staff, which appears to have damaged internal confidence.

The move to regional, rather than country specific, programmes appears to have had a greater impact on the overall effect of the BC. Whilst it is too early to fully evaluate this shift, it has led to seven consecutive years of a decline in income from sponsorship and partners.

The BC is also failing to reach those most in need of the council’s services such as the poor and rural regions of countries due to the new regional format and high prices for the courses.

“The Council must improve its customer service. For example, the Council’s teaching of English is a vital way of transmitting our language and culture across the world. However, the Council’s courses, premium-priced and provided mainly in capital cities, are not the best way of reaching poorer, rural people.”, commented Mr Leigh.

The PAC has recommended the BC immediately lower the costs and be more flexible in its teaching operations so it can broaden its reach.