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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

British Council to shut offices in Europe and beyond amid financial crisis

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LONDON — The British Council, the U.K.’s main cultural and diplomatic institution abroad, is facing substantial job cuts and office closures, including in Belgium and the U.S., after income from English-language teaching and exams plummeted during the pandemic.

According to people familiar with the plans, the British Council — one of the most important tools in Britain’s soft-power arsenal — will reduce its European presence not only by fully closing its Belgian office, but also by cutting on-the-ground staff in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Malta, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland. Instead, there will only be online programs available for these places.

Britain’s security allies in the so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing initiative — Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. — have not been spared from the closures despite the government’s determination to work closely with these countries after Brexit. Outposts in Afghanistan, Chile, Namibia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Uruguay are also expected to shut down.

At the peak of the pandemic last year, the organization was already forced to close 44 out of its 47 English-language schools and 195 out of 223 test centers around the world.

Wendy Chamberlain, a Liberal Democrat MP for Fife in Scotland, urged the U.K. government to increase funding for the British Council to prevent further damage to Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe. The government is due to set out its spending plans for the coming years on October 27.

“This is again part of how we demonstrate to our European friends and neighbors that we want to continue with a close partnership despite having left the EU,” she said.

Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group think tank, said the British Council plays a crucial role in spreading British values and advancing the country’s interests at a time of rising authoritarianism and fundamentalism elsewhere.

“My overall concern with closing British Council offices is that the Global Britain project demands a considerably greater investment in the U.K.’s on-the-ground global diplomatic presence, including in our European neighborhood, and the value that these offices and our other cultural institutions embedded in other communities can promote in the projection of British influence should not be underestimated,” she said.

Bumpy path to recovery

The British Council is funded through a government block grant, overseas development aid and commercial income.

The government’s initial response to the institution’s financial crisis was an emergency grant of £26 million on top of the British Council’s annual grant of £161 million to cover its funding shortfall. But this was counterbalanced shortly afterward by an £18 million cut to the amount of government aid it receives.

A spokesperson for the British Council said last year that “COVID-19 has had a significant impact on our finances. We’re grateful for the short-term funding from the U.K. government and we are in constructive talks with the government to identify a long-term solution.”

The British Council has also received two commercial loans from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office worth a total of £245 million, with undisclosed rates of interest and repayment terms, and contingent upon cost-saving measures.

The government now predicts the British Council’s income from commercial operations will not recover until at least 2023. As of July, teaching revenues were only back to about 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels. That month, the British Council launched a consultation to reduce its payroll by 15-20 percent, which will affect staff both in the U.K. and overseas.

Nigel Adams, a minister at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, insisted the government has already come to the rescue of the British Council through “hundreds of millions” in extra funding, despite Britain facing a £400 billion budget deficit caused by the pandemic.

“We recognize the British Council’s considerable contribution to promoting our influence and values overseas, but it is important to acknowledge, however, the devastating impact on the British Council’s operations as a result of the COVID pandemic,” he told a parliamentary debate Wednesday.

Adams added that the government support is helping the British Council to digitalize. “It would be a strategic mistake to judge the impact of the British Council in a digital world by its physical presence,” he said.

The cuts will be implemented by Scott McDonald, the former chief executive of the consultancy firm Oliver Wyman Group, who took over the reins of the British Council this month.

McDonald said in a statement at the time of his appointment in June that, “it is a huge privilege to be joining the British Council at this important moment in its history,” adding: “The UK has the ability to make enormous contributions to the world and the British Council is a critical part of ensuring a strong future global role for the UK. I am delighted to be part of the team on that journey.”

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