Competition and the council

February 16, 1996

Roger Bowers, director of professional services at the British Council, (Letters, THES, February 2) asserts that Roger Iredale "is unduly influenced by . . . his interests as a member of the board of the Centre for British Teachers". That really is a blow below the belt. The centre does not control Roger Iredale. He is a free spirit and can speak for himself. A serious issue is damaged by implying guilt by association - in either direction.

The British Government has decided that its overseas education contracts shall be open to general tender. There are arguments for and against this, but it has certainly sharpened up the council's performance. In his letter, Roger Bowers claims that "the council's management of aid is, as our guidelines indicate, (not) inimical to British interests". The assertion that it is so because the council's own guidelines say it is so, is, with respect, closer to Alice in Wonderland than to Euclid. Perhaps what is needed is a bit of impartial research on this, which CfBT would be happy to support.

Some people argue that, outside its representational function, the council should be restricted to helping the British private sector, as the commercial departments of embassies do British industry overseas. This makes sense, but it is simply not going to happen. The British Council needs the money, the Treasury is not going to give.

The single issue, therefore, is that competitive tendering, to be effective, needs a level playing field. It can cost Pounds 20,000 to Pounds 30,000 to prepare a tender for a national or international contract. If those willing and competent to bid conclude that the field is tilted against them, they will simply cease to tender and the purposes of competition will be defeated.

I do not know how Roger Bowers can claim that Overseas Development Administration contracts in India have not been ringfenced against the private sector. It is true, though, the decision was probably influenced more by my former colleagues in the Foreign Office than by the British Council - or the ODA.

It is a derogation from Government policy, but that is their business and at least we are not expected to waste money on futile tendering. I am more concerned about the council's denial that they try to squeeze out other providers in areas of nominally open competition. To do this it uses all the non-financial (but publicly financed) advantages of influence, reputation and presence that it wields, in the words of the council's own guidelines, as "the UK's principal agency for cultural relations abroad".

But although this may be distasteful, it is not really surprising. As Roger Iredale and everybody else acknowledges, the council is being squeezed from above. My words are really directed to our political masters. "Gentlemen, (or Ladies), if you want us to compete, then you must make it possible for us to do so."

Andrew Stuart Chairman Centre for British Teachers

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