Faint words or staunch heart? Roger Iredale on the British Council's attempt to quell criticism of its dual role as higher education's advocate and competitor
The end of December saw the publication of the British Council's Guidelines on partnerships and competition which aimed to draw the teeth of those many parts of the British education and training constituency concerned at the inconsistency of the council's position as both advocate and competitor.
The Guidelines consist of 15 single-side A4 sheets, each providing clear and admirably succinct information on the council's work overseas and in the United Kingdom. Titles include "Promotion and marketing services", "Placement on training courses", "Teaching English overseas" and "Choosing partners".
As statements of the council's position on a range of activities the sheets are useful working documents; they even provide a named contact point within the council for each activity, which is a boon to those who find the council's structure and methods impenetrable. To this extent the council must be commended on a useful and practical initiative.
The difficulty lies in what the sheets do not say. Their very publication arose from increasingly vociferous questioning of the council's role by its competitors. These include higher education institutions, English language schools, and project managers like CfBT Education Services (which, like the council, has an interest in managing overseas aid projects but also does extensive UK work in inspection and careers services).
Strong views have been expressed by representatives of organisations that have found themselves competing publicly with the council in situations where other countries like Australia have already got their act together. Many feel that the UK should concentrate on beating off foreign competition rather than publicly engage in what must appear to outsiders as a form of civil warfare.
Of course the difficulty is not of the council's own making: it has been put in an impossible position by the Government, aided and abetted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which refuses (or is unable) to understand that you cannot simultaneously compete with and dispassionately represent the same organisations.
The Government's position is that the council must earn revenue by competing for bilateral and multilateral aid projects and by providing paid English language teaching in countries from Spain to Vietnam. The council does these things aggressively and with a mixed degree of success, but often at the expense of reputable private-sector language schools, higher education institutions and project management organisations which find themselves in competition with an organisation perceived at local level as the official British organ.
The problem is twofold: the council has a network of offices and a reputation that are heavily supported by huge (if diminishing) funds from the taxpayer. More importantly, the Government - despite its stated belief in the free market - is prepared to put the telescope to its blind eye when it suits the interests of the FCO. Hence, in India last year the council was awarded a five-year contract - without any competition at all - to manage British education aid projects amounting to many millions of pounds after intensive pressure from the British high commissioner in New Delhi. It is rumoured that the same will shortly happen in Pakistan.
What the Government refuses to accept is that this structure undermines its stated belief in market forces, the private sector and the discipline of competition. Because the FCO sees the council as the only conduit for cultural representation overseas, it is able to persuade ministers to abandon their much-cherished privatisation dogmas in favour of limiting public expenditure at all costs by unfair competition for bilateral aid projects. Internationally the FCO weakens the British effort by obliging the council to compete with established alternative providers which do not have taxpayers' money behind them.
The council is now doing its best to grapple with this muddled thinking. Its Guidelines are an attempt to clarify and reassure. But although the dilemmas are stated on the introductory page, they are not resolved. While we are told that "the British Council is the UK's principal agency for cultural relations abroad . . . [it] promotes cultural, scientific, technological and other education cooperation between the UK and other countries . . ." we also learn that "the Government encourages us [the council] to maximise non-grant income to the extent compatible with our overall objectives and priorities". The question is: "who defines compatible?" If we turn to the guideline on "Managing development projects" we learn that "by successfully pursuing multilateral opportunities the council maximises the UK's chances of success and secures activity and funding for British partner institutions and individuals". While this may be partially true it highlights the dilemma: does the council really maximise the UK's chances of success when it is perceived by overseas governments to be competing with one of the UK's own universities or a reputable UK private sector company? How does this strengthen the UK's capacity to compete in international markets? How does it strengthen our indigenous capacity to diversify project management experience?
No real sea change will come until the council (and FCO) accepts that it is not the sole cultural ambassador for the UK. Why can the country not be culturally represented overseas by a private sector organisation, as it is already in Cambodia? Why cannot the council support and promote a rival project management company when this is in the UK's interests? In many countries such a role is literally part of the diplomatic mission.
Such a change is in fact beginning to take place within the council's senior management. The organisation is well aware of the strength of feeling against it in many quarters, including higher education institutions, and it is, justifiably, beginning to feel vulnerable. The Guidelines symbolise the dilemmas that have been heaped upon the council by muddled Government thinking and FCO traditionalism.
With yet more grievous cuts in its core budget - reputedly amounting to 8-9 per cent in real terms over the next three years - there will be real temptations for the council to continue on a "business as usual" basis. But I believe that senior management has already realised that this is not possible, and the question is now whether the changes of attitude and practice will be cosmetic or real. Unless a real change in thinking and attitude follows, the council will remain in the position of a person who repeatedly asserts their fidelity to their partner while continuing an affair with a lover.
Roger Iredale is professor of international education at the University of Manchester and former chief education adviser to the Minister for Overseas Development.