Council shifts focus in Russia

March 23, 2007

British Council makes the move from teacher training to supporting a cultural dialogue. Nick Holdsworth reports.

The British Council is to change the focus of its work in Moscow after a period of fractious relations with Russian authorities.

The council, which is negotiating a cultural agreement with the Russian Foreign Ministry, closed its English-language teaching centres across the country last year after high-profile raids by tax officials.

Although nothing irregular was discovered and the tax authorities gave it a clean bill of health, the council decided that it was time to move out of the teaching of English on a commercial basis.

"We wanted to refocus our efforts on the support of Russian teachers of English in the private and the public sectors," James Kennedy, head of the British Council in Russia, told The Times Higher .

Diplomatic relations between Britain and Russia have been under pressure since last year's spy row, when Russian security services found what they alleged (and the Foreign Office denied) was a British transmitting device hidden in a sophisticated electronic instrument disguised as a rock in a Moscow park.

"We need to work to rebuild trust between Russia and Britain. We do need to build up cultural profiles and people-to-people and educational contacts to try to create a better understanding," Mr Kennedy said.

Some 17,000 Russian teachers of English have had in-service training with the help of the British Council. This training will now have more emphasis on cultural dialogue and understanding. The further development of a knowledge and creative economy in Russia - which is a Kremlin priority - will also be strengthened.

And a drive to encourage collaborative work between British and Russian scientists on the challenges of climate change, including the study of the associated risk of a rise in infectious diseases, will mean more bilateral study and research in the field.

"There is a view that Russia has been a latecomer to understanding climate change, but, as the biggest country in the world, it is the one that is going to be most affected by climate change - such as the melting of the permafrost in Siberia, trapped methane release and changing rain patterns over its vast forests," Mr Kennedy said.

A major review of British Council activities across Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East is helping to change what has traditionally been a heavy focus on teacher training and language tuition.

Last month, the council announced plans to close public-access library and information centres in the Baltic states, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia and Austria to free up to £20 million to fund initiatives across the Middle East, the Near East, North Africa and Central and Southern Asia.

A major part of its new programme, "Re-Connect", will focus on building trust between young people in the UK and the target regions.

Martin Davidson, the British Council's director-general, said: "We can achieve more impact for less money by changing the way we work. This unlocks funds to invest in areas of the world such as the Middle East, where cultural relations can make a major contribution to the UK's long-term security and prosperity."

None of the new money will be spent in Russia, but the changes underpin the council's new focus there, Mr Kennedy said.

"We shall be looking for projects that increase cultural understanding between Britain and Russia. A lot of that will be about doing what we have always done, but bringing clearer awareness about the objectives."

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