British Council stands for national advantage

February 2, 1996

I fear the focus of Roger Iredale's views on partnership and competition (THES, January 17) is unduly influenced by his experience as education supremo at the Overseas Development Agency, his academic role in international education, and his interests as a member of the board of the Centre for British Teachers.

The concerns of the British Council range wider than those he highlights and have to do with national rather than institutional advantage. How does Britain participate in and bring benefit to international education? How can the council promote British education and training? How does the council sustain the network of strategic alliances that underpins Britain's cultural, developmental and commercial interests?

The council's management of aid is, as our guidelines indicate, neither inimical to British interests nor a new feature of our work. We have managed projects and schemes for the ODA for 30 years, competed for multilateral business for more than 20 years.

Most United Kingdom institutions neither have nor want the capacity to pursue and manage major projects overseas, preferring to supply services into them. Those institutions with the capacity are under the same obligation as the council to set out transparently their partnership and competition, procurement and promotion guidelines. Where are they?

In several respects Iredale's article is just plain wrong. The council's grants from Government are not being reduced by "8 per cent to 9 per cent" over three years. The real terms figure is around 16 per cent, including a swingeing 28 per cent on the ODA side. We know further and higher education are facing similar funding problems.

Salami-slicing will not work for either the council or the education sector. We will be retooling and refocusing to create the British Council of the 21st century - alongside the universities as they too plan anew for their roles, resources and rejuvenation. We must work together.

The ODA (delicately unmentioned by Iredale) did not offer the council a major contract in India without following its own rules of procurement. It has asked the council to continue providing field management in the education sector, as we do already successfully and to India's satisfaction. This involves procuring UK institutional and professional services under contract to implement the ODA programme. We are unaware of any similar decision taken regarding Pakistan.

It is simply not the case that the council's English teaching overseas, however successful, has driven other British interests out. The demand for English is worldwide, and growing. The council teaches English in just 79 cities, in 45 countries: that leaves a helluva gap to fill.

Reference to the privatisation of cultural relations is a generous interpretation of the Centre for British Teachers' success in winning an ODA education project in Cambodia.

Does Iredale want HMG to privatise the British Council's Charter responsibilities? Or FCO's overseas missions? (John Belcher's letter (THES January 26) seems to take us further in that direction.) That would seem a pretty extreme position to adopt, and does nothing to resolve the central concerns which Iredale identifies.

Or is he simply making the point that all British collaboration overseas can contribute to Britain's international image and standing? The council would say hooray to that.

But back to the guidelines. Informal presentations on them have already begun around the country. We are seeking formal reactions from professional and representative bodies. This is an open exercise and if you want to see the guidelines or wish to comment, contact me at roger.bowers or fax 0161 957 77.

Roger Bowers Director professional services The British Council

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