The British Council has always denied that it competes unfairly, and indeed it is recorded in the recent Triennial Review that “The Chair of the British Council wrote to the Review Director categorically rebutting the complaint of unfair competition” – so we have denial plus preemptive denial. However those of us who work in education and have had close relationships with the organisation know not only that the British Council competes unfairly in any number of ways, but also that the British Council, including therefore the main board, the Board of Trustees and by extension the FCO, knows full well that this is so. But that is not the most important point.
Let us imagine for a moment that the playing field was levelled and that the British Council competed on an equal basis for contracts at home and abroad. Let us assume in that scenario that diplomatic representation played no part, and that no British Council employee including staff members from the “Chief Executive” to locally employed cleaners who derived their livelihood ultimately from the British taxpayer, performed any service for the commercial arm of the organisation, and that there was no subsidy or advantage through inter-governmental cultural agreements, shared premises or local taxation arrangements or any other factor, including pensions. In other words consider the purely theoretical possibility that competition from the British Council was clearly and transparently fair. How long do you think that would last? How likely is it that they could win contracts on merit and see off organisations founded on expertise such as CfBT, Pearson or Orbital Education, or professional educational publishing houses? The British Council has a long history of cocking things up (who else remembers English for Oman, English for Yemen, the ECCTIS 2000 database, their mess with Education UK and so on?). It is a history which has made them adept at denial, obfuscation and cover-up, and made them keen at every opportunity to play the diplomatic, charitable, public service card.
With the purpose of the organisation unclear (“We found little evidence that the current statement of purpose …had resonance outside the organisation”), the org points to its commercial success. But how has the outfit managed to grow its earnings so significantly? Its fee income has almost doubled in real terms over the past ten years (from about £275 million to £500 million) – which in international education is pretty smart work. So hands up if you believe that is because the British Council employs so many leading experts and crack managers that success is inevitable? And hands up if you think it might be something to do with queue-jumping, governmental and diplomatic contacts, snapping up contracts that never go to tender and other cosy deals, using grant-funded staff for commercial advantage, double dealing with UK companies, resources (financial and human) migrating from grant to commerce, and of course government branding? The question is rhetorical, or what in common parlance is known as a no-brainer. My contention is simply this: that for the British Council loss of unfair advantage in their commercial dealings would be nothing short of catastrophic.
What does this mean in the context of the recommendations of the Triennial Review? Well, to start with the TR hands the British Council a degree of unfair advantage on a plate when it says
We conclude that the British Council is indeed in a beneficial position in its relations with host governments by virtue of its extensive and long-standing networks but note that achieving such a position is part of its core purpose. While that can be seen as providing an unfair advantage over other UK commercial competitors, the Review does not believe that it would bring overall benefit to the UK and UK businesses to undermine the British Council’s advantageous network of relationships, but rather that that network needs to work for the benefit of all UK providers and that competition is as fair as possible.
i.e. we acknowledge that use of its contacts for commercial purposes isn’t fair, but we don’t want to have to make the only decision that could both support the networks and ensure fairness, which would be to resolve that the British Council stays out and, in a professional and disinterested manner, publicly notifies the UK companies and institutions most likely to benefit the client, and so help UK business, which pays for it. So it won’t happen. The likeliest outcome of this Triennial Review exercise is therefore that the BC will do what they are best at – prevaricate, obstruct and obfuscate in order maximally to dilute the TR recommendations and hang on to every bit of unfair competitive advantage that they can. That may sound cynical but in truth it is not. It will happen because it is absolutely vital if the British Council is to survive as what they like to call an “entrepreneurial public service”.
Take away the buoyancy provided by unfair competition, and the British Council ship will sink like a stone.