This was a first time attempt - next time I'll shave first.
This was a first time attempt - next time I'll shave first.
Outside the faculty building the bus stops and a (British) college porter and an Indian student get on board, pay the fare and sit down. They both live in the same part of town, and both stop off at their local supermarket where the student gets some tea, bread, butter, jam, milk, onions and eggs and a magazine, while the college porter picks up a six pack and the evening paper. Setting aside their different requirements, how many of you readily accept that the services and products paid for by the student in this mini-saga are exports? The newly published British Council report on “The value of education training and exports” would like you to accept that the student’s expenditure here is not only counted as export value, but specifically as educational export value.
No doubt the politicians will seize on the report’s headline figure of £28 billion with the same glee and alacrity, and the same crass stupidity, as the journos. The Guardian, for example, has this:
Education is worth more to UK exports than financial services or the automotive industry, according to a report published by the British Council today.
A total of £28bn in 2003-04 was earned from overseas students by a sector ranging from world famous universities to small English language colleges, from independent schools to publishers and broadcasters.
But unpick that headline figure. Of the £27.8 billion estimated in the report, more than half (54.4%) comes from consultancy. Since the reporters clearly know nothing about what this means, this huge figure (£15,117,000,000) is glossed in one paragraph only, where it says “These figures appear in the balance of payments accounts under categories other than education so they cannot be counted as education exports for balance of payments purposes because of the problem of double counting. Nevertheless, the total figure is…” etc. The figures are, it seems, for business management and consultancy, advertising and R & D. “Earned from overseas students”? I think not. So that's most of it, but the issues do not of course end there.
As one who has worked in educational publishing, I choke on the £1.4 billion figure assigned to educational publishing exports. Analysing turnover in the export book (plus) trade is a sophisticated business since so much production is done outside the country, and a leading British publisher operating in, say, Italy would not only be buying paper and printing in, say, Hong Kong (or Italy), but also be employing all their editorial, design and sales staff in Italy. And such a British company might, in fact, be American owned. I would quibble too with the inclusion of broadcasting and educational equipment, but let’s pass on all that and get to the main point.
These are very muddy waters. Students come to Britain to work in big numbers. Thousands of overseas students fail to show at British universities every year, and if, show or no-show, they make their money here it is daft to talk of export value. The overseas student market is, as we have noted earlier, virtually controlled by agencies whose significant share of tuition revenue remains overseas. If we strip down the £1,098,900,000 assigned in the report to ELT for example, we find that not only is it inflated, but that that market is simply not understood (and if, for example, a week’s tuition is close to an average of £80 the net tuition revenue attributable to the sector might be just £200 million). The problem with the report is that it is pseudo-scientific (that £10,001 figure, oh dear), devoid of an understanding of the international student market, has a puff agenda and is seriously misleading.
The British Council is obsessed with leapfrogging education export figures, so it lobs everything it can think of into a pot, including a mass of stuff it clearly does not understand, and then (for political reasons we are all familiar with) announces the fantasy that it has identified an export that is worth more than automobiles. Do you really believe that? Should Doris (or more likely Agnieszka) in a cafe at Hull, as she hands a cup of tea to a student in a turban, really be pleased that she’s just achieved another educational export for Britain?
I refer, of course, to the opportunity to produce something sensible about the value of our education “exports”, and specifically to make sense of one area that the British Council used to regard as its own: English language teaching. We must hope that the report announced today is more accurate in its calculations regarding other education sectors.
But let’s begin with some points that apply across the board, including HE and FE and independent schools.
Firstly, you do not, in this market, get an aggregate fee value by multiplying the number of students by the nominal fees. The international education market is dominated by agents, probably accounting for at least 80% of fee paying overseas students, and probably collecting commissions (typically these are in fact discounts, referred to in the trade as commission) of at least 15% to 35%.
Secondly, the number of overseas students – in HE, FE and ELT – who work is considerable. For HE this was estimated in the UNITE/UKCOSA report as 20% of overseas students, but anecdotal evidence suggests that may be a significant underestimate (a number of institutions we have contacted use the word “most”). It matters. A simple definition of an export is “a product shipped from one country for sale in another”. If the product (or service), whatever it is, is delivered here and paid for with money earned here, it is not an export.
Those two factors taken together, both essential for calculating financial value and both ignored in the present report, would suggest that all education “export” values given in reports commissioned by the British Council are significantly overstated.
Specifically the English language teaching figures are not clever. Dr Lenton estimates the average weekly fee of an ELT course at £245, adds a weekly expenditure amount (of about £190), multiplies the total by an estimated number of student weeks, and comes up with £1.1 billion. It’s clear that she has been badly briefed, and is consequently – and understandably - muddled. The report says:
“…These courses are provided in institutions that are members of English UK. There also exist a large number of students attending unaccredited ELT programmes, whose numbers are estimated using the International Passenger Survey”.
It is true that a majority of accredited institutions are members of English UK, but the distinction made here is crude and simpliste (and certainly too crude and simpliste for a report which estimates HE student annual expenditure at a striking £10,001.00). Moreover, the IPS does not distinguish between accredited and non-accredited, and since the question asked in the survey (concerning whether the passenger took an English course during their visit) could also be answered affirmatively by HE and FE students, au pairs and others, the presentation is highly misleading.
Dr Lenton might have asked herself why it is that only ELT students apparently spend more on their courses than on other expenditure. And perhaps she might have wondered how that could possibly be true in such a competitive market. The numbers, the masses, will be found in General English courses which are of low value, also in the British Council accredited sector. So here’s my stab at a model for the market:
No. of Students – 525,000
Average length of Stay – 5 weeks
Average nominal tuition charge per week - £80.00
Average other weekly expenditure - £200.00
Students x weeks x (average weekly fees + expenditure) = £735 million.
Less money earned in the UK, say, 150,000 students earn average of £500 = (£75 million).
Less discount / commission paid to overseas agents, say, 20% on 2 million weeks = (£32 million).
Net “export” value = £628 million.
No, it’s not scientific, and yes it’s short and glib. But it’s free, and I would be confident that it’s a lot more accurate than what emanates - at no doubt considerable expense to the taxpayer - from the British Council.
PS. With customary sloppiness the British Council have got their own URL wrong on the cover. Can you imagine that happening in the private sector? I think not. Apologies for the hiatus btw I have been out of the country. The picture is of a bottle I bought yesterday in a supermarket in Noyon ("twinned with Hexham"). I plan to send them a bottle of a local brew "Norfolk 'n Good". An educational export we might say.
Someone in the British Council has come up with a good wheeze for getting money out of Africa, and it’s called the “Management Forum”. In Uganda there was announcement today that the Management Forum there is to be sponsored by “New Vision” – a fully state-owned media corporation. So, just as they recently secured a contract with the government in Libya, that’s money for the British Council from that government source sewn up. But there’s a further sweetener, as any African wanting to get any benefit from the “Management Forum” is also seen as fair game for a sale.
Take a look at the BC’s registration form. With customary sloppiness they haven’t noticed that “British Council” appears twice in the header. That is, after all, only the customary sloppiness. But does that request (scroll down the page) to tick the box strike you as straightforward? If you don’t tick it all you have done is handed over your data for absolutely nothing (“nor will you be able to join the group”). Thanks a bunch.
And the first thing that faces the aspirant accessing the site, apart from the (mercifully ex) Director-General’s picture, is the opportunity to spend 100,000 Tanzanian Shillings (about £40) on a “Fast Track” series on “Starting your own business and business plan that produce results” (sic). Whatever that is, and there is no reference to course validation or any other authority which in Britain would be normal and required, we must hope that this course, coming as it does from the most unlikely source – a state sponsored, overprivileged quango - is not authored by some pampered BC employee armed with the business acumen of a turnip.
Whatever its source ask yourself. Does this strike you as the sort of engagement that should be made with Africans in our name with our money? Does this strike you as an appropriate activity for a British charity? Would you not be a little concerned by the fact that the British Council, this publicly funded, “representative” British organisation, is accepting sponsorship from a wholly state-owned foreign media organisation, while shiftily collecting private data and selling an apparently unvalidated course to Africans at what is likely to be at the extreme end of their ability to pay?
We British pay for this organisation, and we must stop it.
OK, I made that up. What the British Council spokeswoman quoted in today’s Independent actually said was “libraries are only a tiny part of what we do”. It’s because there’s no money in it for the British Council that the tiny part is getting tinier by the minute.
There was a time when the British Council “did” libraries rather a lot – in fact, there was a time when, for most people, that was pretty much what the British Council mostly did. So an iconic moment, that also moved Fay Weldon to protest, was the recent closure of the library in Athens and the carting off of 8000 books to Athens University, where presumably they still have a use for this ancient technology (and British culture of course). No money in books, you see.
In March this year the British Council conducted an online survey (offering a “British Council Rucksack and Memory Stick” as incentives for respondents), which popped up on its home page, to test the idea of opening an online bookshop. Yes, its own British Council online bookshop. On March 10th I wrote to a couple of friends in the trade warning them about this, because the only stone cold certainty is that if the BC had gone ahead with this, it would have been bad for the book trade. (The idea was of course laughable. Can you imagine the British Council being able to compete on price or service with, say, Amazon? Or even managing stock at all? Dream on). Wise counsel prevailed and the hare-brained idea was dropped. So they couldn’t make money out of books that way either.
In fact the British Council not only used to have libraries, but were active supporters of the book trade in all sorts of ways. There was, for example, something called the ELBS (English Language Book Society), which was a model for giving financial support to educational books for use in developing countries. It was a scheme that cost very little and, by collaborating with the Publishers Association, supported both British publishing – which could therefore lengthen print runs and bring down costs and get special low-cost editions of their publications used in developing countries – and, with remarkable cost-effectiveness, the education of pupils and students in developing countries. (And authors: I should declare an interest as one who, albeit many years ago, benefited from this scheme). But again, no money in it for the British Council.
British Council libraries existed (and, increasingly rarely, exist) to provide a gentle and civilised window on to British culture, creativity, expertise and education. They assisted overseas ministries of education and teaching personnel, they were a port of call or a point of refuge for students, and they provided support to British publishing – and not just to J K Rowling and Fay Weldon and creative authors of that ilk, but to educational, ELT, scientific and technical and reference publishing and so on.
The British Council has in recent times positioned itself as Club 18-35, where it’s sexy. Books are square. These young people, the British Council spokeswoman tells us, are “much more effectively reached by a whole host of other activities”. It’s a market you see. And the British Council sells its own services – especially courses and exams - as aggressively as it can to its market. Thus it “reaches” them in a way which, unlike that book stuff, is cost-effective for them.
There’s money (for some in the British Council anyway) in other creative activity such as dancing and fine (or poo) arts, but sadly not in books (or other people’s copyright generally) . Tough for authors, tough for publishers. But the corrupted, parasitical and unaccountable British Council is not a charity (except in name), and is not there (except for appearances’ sake) to promote British interests. It exists, quite simply, for itself.