Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from the British Council


  1.  Global uncertainty, the breakdown of trust between nations and the rise of fear and intolerance in many countries pose fresh challenges for both international and cultural relations at the start of the 21st century.

  2.  11 September and its aftermath have reinforced the case for investing in dialogue between nations and cultures. Simultaneously, there is a greater need than ever to win recognition abroad for the UK's values, ideas and achievements and to build lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with other countries.

  3.  In a world where "people to people" diplomacy is of increasing importance, the British Council provides a unique means of promoting dialogue and mutual understanding, and of demonstrating the creativity of a contemporary United Kingdom to wider sets of influential audiences abroad.


  4.  Following 11 September, the British Council fundamentally reassessed its work in countries with large Arab and Muslim populations. We set out to see how we could start to tackle the dangerous gulf in understanding developing between people of differing cultures.

  5.  As a consequence, we launched a new initiative called Connecting Futures, which aims to build understanding between young people of different faiths and cultures, starting with ten priority countries with predominately Muslim populations. We have re-prioritised £2 million annually for the next four years to implement this new strategic approach, over and above the resources already committed in the 33 countries with large Muslim populations where we currently operate.

  6.  We have undertaken detailed research among 5,000 young people aged between 15 and 24 to find out their views of the UK and other countries and to assess their own aspirations. This research—along with the views of young people from the priority countries participating in a youth forum held earlier this year—will form the basis for a range of co-operative projects for the future.

  7.  We have brought groups from each of the priority countries to work with youth groups in ten UK cities and towns with large diaspora communities, giving the opportunity to young people from socially excluded areas to start a dialogue with their counterparts from other cultural backgrounds.

  8.  We have completed a scooping mission to Kabul to explore re-establishing services in Afghanistan to complement FCO/DFID work in reconstruction, building on our experience of working in post-conflict situations in Bosnia and Kosovo.

  9.  In both Bangladesh and Pakistan, we are engaging with madrassa schools, providing consultancies including research into curricula, the use of English and IT, sport and science in a religious based school systems, along with training for head teachers.

  10.  Above all, in difficult circumstances in Pakistan, we kept operating when our analogues closed. At the height of the tension, we were still delivering 20,000 examinations during October and November during the height of the tension over Afghanistan.


  11.  In a more volatile international climate, public diplomacy requires that cultural relations organisations find innovative ways of reaching a critical mass of public opinion internationally with favourable images and messages about the United Kingdom.

  12.  Since 2000, we have been reshaping our network, investing in people, partnerships and new technologies precisely to address the aspirations and interests of younger, wider audiences internationally.

  13.  We are engaging new generations of young people through innovative means. The Selector radio series, syndicated in thirteen countries, brings contemporary UK music to audiences of millions. The award-winning Football Culture website reaches new audiences internationally by linking their interest in sport with issues of social inclusion, tolerance and acceptance of diversity. We integrate our work promoting UK education overseas to younger audiences with contemporary arts with club DJs/VJs and festivals such as Fuji Rock in Japan.

  14.  In geographical terms, we are expanding our operations in China and Russia, with significant benefits to the UK, while shifting resources into transitional countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

  15.  We are building an IT-based network of 50 Knowledge and Learning Centres across the globe to link millions of people internationally through Internet and video-conferencing facilities, providing them with learning opportunities and creative ideas from the UK. We have also opened our first call centre for educational enquiries in Madrid, in partnership with the British Tourist Authority.

  16.  We have worked in partnership with government departments, and educational institutions to attract more international students to the United Kingdom, managing the Education UK brand under the Prime Minister's Initiative. This initiative is on track to meet ambitious targets for increasing the number of self-funded students despite fierce international competition.

  17.  In undertaking these changes, we have fulfilled our commitments made in the last spending review and shown our capacity to meet the public diplomacy objective of improving foreign perceptions of the UK.

  18.  These changes provide a platform to address the challenges of the post-11 September international environment. We need now to reach out to new audiences, engaging with new young audiences outside formal education systems, not traditionally involved in public diplomacy work, so that we can seek greater understanding and foster dialogue between nations and cultures.


  19.  The British Council's status, with an arm-length's relationship with government, gives us the ability to create synergy from our grant-funded activities and revenue-funded programmes. We are increasingly being viewed as a role model for cultural relations work around the world.

  20.  President Chirac of France, for example, has proposed establishing cultural relations agency on the lines of the British Council, while both the Irish and the Austrians are actively considering adopting the UK model.

  21.  The synergy we bring to our grant-funded work and our paid services increases our impact and our reach. By combining the FCO grant-in-aid of £145 million a year with our teaching of English, delivery of UK examinations and wider project work from commercially-tendered contracts, we have succeeded in adding an extra £288 million a year to its activities.

  22.  Our work in paid services vastly increases our engagement with young people around the world, offering both quality services which people want and a gateway to the wider range of activity.

  23.  Our work in agency contracts, worth £60 million a year, delivers greater impact and provides wider leverage for the UK is areas covered by our activities, such as education, governance and the English language.

  24.  We are increasingly basing our work and activities on methodologies with indicators which measure impact, reputation, customer satisfaction and target audiences' perceptions of the UK. Undertaking attitude surveys on perceptions of the young about the UK—most recently in predominantly Arab and Muslim countries—and understanding the factors which influence the choice of students studying abroad are two examples of the kind of market research undertaken by the British Council.

  25.  We are committed to working with other public diplomacy partners. We believe the UK's public diplomacy effort can be enhanced by working more closely together, while recognising the different strengths and approaches of organisations across the spectrum of public diplomacy. Our role in managing the Prime Minister's Initiative on international students demonstrates that commitment and the capacity to carry it out where it matters in country.

PROPOSALS FOR 2003-04 TO 2005-06

  26.  Our proposals for the three years covered by the current spending review are aimed at reinforcing the UK's effort to promote international stability in an increasingly uncertain world.

  27.  They primarily support the FCO's public diplomacy objective to improve "positive foreign perceptions of the UK". They also contribute to the FCO's objectives on security, trade, development, quality of life and the European Union.


  28.  Connecting Futures represents a strategic reappraisal of the impact the British Council seeks to achieve in countries with substantial Muslim populations. The 11 September attacks on the USA and subsequent events have highlighted the breakdown in understanding between different communities, and have shown an urgent need for cultural dialogue to be brought centre stage as a means of reducing the potential for future conflict. In particular, they demonstrate the need for the UK to understand and engage more directly with a wider representation of young people in predominantly Muslim countries. The Council, with its focus on young people and work in education, English teaching, the arts, sport, science and human rights, is ideally placed to perform this role.

  29.  The Connecting Futures initiative is focusing initially on 10 countries (Egypt, Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Turkey and Iran). We are seeking to reach a wider young audience of students, young professionals, potential leaders within their communities, those in non-formal education and in work. We are concentrating initially on 16 to 25 year olds, but will later broaden the range to start at a younger age when resources permit.

  30.  The programme aims to:

    —  create opportunities for young people to meet, exchange ideas and work on co-operative projects to increase their understanding both of shared interests and cultural differences

    —  work with influencers of public opinion in target countries and the UK to build a climate of understanding of cultures and their differences

    —  build new relationships between the British Council and diaspora communities in the UK, with a view to enhancing the impact of programmes in priority countries.

  31.  In addition to these activities, we plan to re-establish directorates in Afghanistan and Algeria, to open a new directorate in Tajikistan, and to create two Centres for English Language Learning Support in the Middle East and Central Asia.

  32.  As a result of the Connecting Futures initiative, significant numbers of young people previously outside the reach of the Council's programmes will be brought into contact with the UK and exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking. In the long term, the initiative will help to build enduring relationships between the UK and countries with substantial Muslim populations, reducing the potential for conflict arising from cultural differences.


  33.  The UK is committed to supporting the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), which aims to give new impetus to reform and development in the continent by creating a step change in the way that African and developed countries engage with each other. The Council, through our work in developing future leaders, strengthening civil society and providing access to educational opportunities from the UK, will complement the work of the FCO and DfID in the region, and help to create the environment in which NEPAD can succeed. Funding is sought for programmes aimed at nurturing open and accountable government, providing support for teachers and learners of English, and facilitating networks between young professionals. The Council also proposes to establish directorates in Côte d'Ivoire and Angola in support of UK political and commercial interests in francophone and lusophone Africa.


  34.  We propose to enhance our programmes in countries beyond the post-2004 EU Schengen borders in order to build understanding and co-operation between these countries and the UK, and to strengthen their commitment to the systems and values of the EU. This in turn will contribute to reducing the risks that these countries still pose to the security and prosperity of the EU. The proposals include the opening of regional centres in Kaliningrad, Nanja Luka and Sevastopol to support NGO capacity building in conflict resolution and to promote civil society initiatives. A new directorate will also be opened in Moldova with a focus on English language, education reform and strengthening civil society.


  35.  This proposal builds on two successful initiatives launched by the Council with funding from the 2000 Spending Review—the development of a network of IT-based knowledge and learning centres (KLCs) and the establishment of a Centre for English Language Learning Support in China. Both projects represent important vehicles for modernising the delivery of the Council's services and shaping the perceptions of the UK among wider, younger audiences. The Council plans to create a further ten KLCs and to establish two CELLS in Latin America and Russia. This will enable Council services to reach an additional 300,000 young professionals in key countries.


  36.  The Council is committed to working with the DfES and other UK partners on the implementation of the Prime Minister's Initiative, which aims to build long-term sustainable relations between the UK and other countries through education—particularly by increasing the number of fee-paying international students. The Council proposes to strengthen the PMI by developing programmes to promote UK distance learning and overseas-delivered courses, to strengthen alumni networks and to increase the market for "study abroad" courses in the UK. The new promotional activities will generate some £60 million per year additional revenue for the UK and will significantly increase the number of young people exposed to UK ideas and values.


  37.  The Council proposes to exploit the UK's international reputation in the creative industries to generate mutually beneficial relationships between the UK and key countries in Central Europe, East Asia and Latin America. The programme, which will involve market research, workshops and promotional events, will position the UK as a source of expertise and preferred partner in the development of the creative industries, helping to increase creative industries exports (currently worth £10.2 billion a year) and to enhance perceptions of UK creativity.


  38.  We plan to modernise our financial systems over the next five years by implementing a standard integrated business system platform throughout our global network. The new Finance and Business Systems (FBAS) will enable the Council to improve radically the quality of services provided to customers by exploiting developments such as e-business and web-enabled service delivery. We will also provide an opportunity to re-engineer business processes throughout the organisation, making them more efficient and effective. When fully implemented, FABS is expected to generate cost savings of £4 million a year.


  39.  The effectives of the Council's operations in many countries depends on being accessible to the public. However, the threat of terrorist attacks on Council offices has increased significantly since the events of 11 September. We are seeking funding to improve security for staff and visitors throughout our overseas network, and to build new, secure premises in Islamabad.


  40.  We are seeking additional funding amounting to £57.6 million over the three years of the Spending Review period (see table below):

£ million
Additional funding:
revised budget
per cent increase

  41.  These proposals include £11.6 million of capital expenditure, approximately half of which falls in 2003-04.


  42.  As part of our 2005 strategy, we have initiated a substantial re-prioritisation of resources in order to maximise the impact and effectiveness of its work. Over the next five years, a total of £17.9 million will be released from lower priority areas of activity and re-directed towards work on new or enhanced programmes and services. A new evaluation strategy is also being introduced to provide more reliable data to inform decisions on the re-prioritisation of resources.

  43.  A total of £9 million (5.6 per cent of the Council's 2003-04 baseline) will be redeployed over the Spending Review period. This figure is made up of £5.8 million moved from lower priority overseas directorates and £3.2 million released from expenditure on staff re-structuring. These resources will be used to fund increased operational programmes in high priority countries and the development of new programmes and services, especially IT-based services aimed at reaching younger, wider audiences.


  44.  The Council's proposals are aimed at ensuring we remain capable of responding effectively to changing governmental priorities, while continuing to modernise programmes and improve the quality of services offered to customers. These represent a strategic investment in the Council's future as an organisation that is ideally placed to win influence for the UK by nurturing dialogue and mutually beneficial partnerships with other countries.

The British Council

May 2002

2   OPM adjustments not included in baseline figure Back

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Prepared 14 November 2002