Investing in our soft power assets – the British Council & the Spending Review

This is the second in a series of blogs on the upcoming Spending Review, and how Britain maximises its influence and soft power across the world at a time of declining budgets. This focuses on the British Council, the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. Find the first, on the FCO here.

FCO financing, under the spotlight in the forthcoming Spending Review, has significant influence on key soft power assets, of which the UK has many, built up and consolidated over many centuries. Founded in 1934 to create ‘a friendly knowledge and understanding’ between the people of the UK and wider world, the British Council (interacting with nearly 550 million people in over 100 countries each year) receives grant-in-aid British-Council-plaque-001funding from the FCO allowing it to “represent the UK’s long term interest in countries where we cannot rely on earned income alone”.  Government funding was cut by 25% from 2010/2011 – 2013/2014, and in 2013 it received £172 million in government aid, on par with 1998-1999 levels. However, the organisation has been developing alternative funding streams, resulting in the perception that the organisation is adopting a more commercial approach, which, according to John Baron MP (member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee), “risks damaging a unique brand”. With over 75 per cent of turnover earned through teaching and exams, tendered contracts and partnerships, FCO funding is less than 20% of the organisation’s income. Last’s year’s Triennial Review of the British Council reported that self-generated income (English Language Teaching & exams) increased by over £100 million since 2010 and predicted it would increase by a further £100 million by 2015 – “well beyond levels needed” to compensate funding cuts. Nevertheless, as Colm McGivern, Director of the British Council in South Africa explains, “like every organization in receipt of public funds we have to be increasingly efficient and constantly innovative in the ways we connect the UK to other countries using education and culture.” This is in the face of increasing competition, with China’s Confucius Institute and Institut Français surpassing the British Council in number of offices globally.

Most recently, the Foreign Affair60888s Select Committee called for protection of the British Council’s budget in the Spending Review: “Any attempt to make a parallel cut to the British Council budget in the 2015 Spending Review would inevitably weaken the UK’s capacity to project soft power and culture in target countries with growing economies or regions with high priority political and human rights concerns, such as Russia and the Gulf.”