The British Council in its “About us” pages offers the reader something called “Strategy 2010”, which outlines aspirations for what it hopes to have achieved two and a half years from now. Two samples:
We'll be a world authority in cultural relations, English language teaching and the international dimensions of education and the arts. We'll show how sport can contribute to cultural relations. We'll help the UK to contribute to regional and global dialogues.
Ah yes, a “world authority” on “cultural relations”. When the present Director-General (“Chief Executive”) applied for the job last year, the display advertisement in The Economist described the British Council as “The world’s leading cultural relations organisation”. So either it will simply be in 2010 what it already was in 2006, or it was being deliberately misleading when it advertised the job, or there is a subtle difference whereby in 2010 the British Council will actually understand its claims, whereas when it advertised it was the leader, but without the authority. Or something. In fact since few agree on what “cultural relations” means, and it’s an issue which hasn’t bothered the British Council for the past 70 years, the organisation can fudge it all by a combination of looking concerned Patricia Hewitt style when a foreign person explains his/her customs or religion (especially that religion), and by laying on the usual range of art exhibitions, concerts and plays. And dancing. (While making a few bob on the side).
Running state subsidised language schools does not make you any sort of authority on English language teaching, and there is not much confidence in the Council in this regard [e.g. this from Rod Bolitho: There has been an all-too visible shift in British Council priorities in recent years. The emphasis in many of their overseas operations has shifted from grant-in-aid funded support for state ELT to income generation through selling courses and examinations through their Teaching Centres. Sadly, it is often only the rich and privileged that can afford these services, which means that state sector teachers and learners are often neglected. It also means that public perceptions of the British Council are changing. Where it was once seen as a source of support for hard-pressed state sector ELT professionals, it is now increasingly regarded as just another commercial operation, one which is often at the elite end of the market in terms of affordability]. Our Spain and Libya and IELTS and Mozambique stories underscore Rod’s point.
And as for “we’ll show how sport can contribute to cultural relations” – the British Council? The British Council is going to what? John P McEnroe to that one.
We'll increase what we earn from paid services (like teaching and exams) that are relevant to what we're trying to achieve because this will help us reach lots more people.
The British Council does not “earn”; it spends our money. True, it turns over millions as a result of selling exams, selling courses, selling exhibition space and promotional services and so on, but it can only do that on the back of a non-competitive monopoly position arrived at as a function of enormous subsidies, cosy deals and tax breaks, and by employing what it refers to itself as “economy with the truth”. How could the British Council do any of those things cost-effectively without its taxpayer-funded international network, its taxpayer-funded and secured early retirement and index-linked pensions arrangements, its quasi-governmental status, and so on? How could the British Council, with Directors-General (or “Chief Executives”) who can fly around the world first class and take days off on company time to paint landscapes and churches, with cosseted staff who flit from post to post developing no targeted skills beyond the microculture of advancement within the British Council, how could such a sloppy, introspective and amateurish organisation ever compete on a level playing field with the expertise and disciplines and professionalism of the private sector? If it increases what it takes, you can be sure we taxpayers (and others overseas) will be paying for it.
The contortions, in other words, continue. The British Council has got to retain the “grant-in-aid” on which it depends for its existence by doing what the FCO tells it to. It has got to be a branch of government in order to ensure retirement at 60 and civil service pensions and diplomatic status. It has got to keep the tax benefits of charitable status with (puppet) trustees, royal patrons and all the trimmings by assuring the Charity Commission that actually it is independent and that it does not just do what the FCO tells it to. It has got to justify the taxpayers’ huge contribution by telling Parliament that it is acting in the taxpayers’ interests and that it doesn’t use taxpayers’ money to help its business and so undermine genuine (taxpaying) enterprise. Even though it does, usually covertly, both directly and indirectly. And it has to get in as much money as possible by charging taxpayers for services they have already paid for, and by capitalising on unfair anti-competitive subsidies in order for staff to continue to enjoy the absurdly luxurious style to which they have become accustomed. And of course run a subsidiary limited company (“BC Trading International”) to provide income and profits which presumably can’t be made to fit even the vaguest charitable parameters. And rationalise conflicts of interest such as we have touched on. And then somehow puff all this up into a “strategy”.
It’s time for a bright light and some fresh air. It’s time that the organisation demonstrated the virtues of integrity, transparency and accountability to which it pays lip service. It’s time that those responsible for the subsidies and privileges of this bloated organisation demonstrated cool, logical analysis, and provided a clear outcome which the rest of us, at home and abroad, can live with. What we’ve got – an overfed, parasitical, posturing, undemocratic, devious interference - will not do.