How serious a blow is losing the Brexit-inspired Turing student and trainee mobility scheme for the British Council?  And can the United Kingdom’s cultural and educational global icon survive yet another knock to its prestige and reputation?

It is worth asking as the latest move to strip the British Council, or BC, from running the UK’s post-Brexit alternative to the European Union’s Erasmus+ student mobility programme was greeted with dismay by most of the international higher education community, as I reported for University World News

Instead of being announced by the British government’s Department for Education (DfE), it was left to The Guardian newspaper to reveal that the Turing outward mobility scheme for British students was being handed over to the for-profit private outsourcing firm Capita next April in an exclusive story published on 8 December, 2021.

The latest blow to the British Council follows the autumn announcement that one in five of its staff around the world face the axe after the UK’s Foreign Office told the BC bosses to come up with a five-year spending programme that will see an overall cut in spending of £185m. Offices are due to close from Belgium to the United States and from Australia to South Sudan, The Guardian has reported.

Unlike most other public bodies, the British Council usually generates 85% of its income, mainly through teaching and examinations. When the pandemic hit, many of its global operations were closed, and the BC found itself in dire financial straits.

There’s a good potted-history of the troubles facing Britain’s equivalent of France’s Alliance Francaise, Germany’s Goethe-Institut and China’s Confucius Institute and the threat to around 2000 British Council staff on the Public and Commercial Services Union website.

Sombre tone in CEO’s Christmas message

So, perhaps it is not surprising that the new British Council CEO Scott McDonald set a in a sombre tone in a pre-Christmas message to the world, via LinkedIn.

McDonald posted: “I have survived almost four months as the Chief Executive of the British Council. It’s a heavy responsibility and supported by the hard work of thousands of talented and creative people who have dedicated their lives to ensuring the UK is a trusted and valued international partner.”

Scott McDonald, British Council chief executive

For a modern boss, he was surprisingly open about “the immense pressure on almost every front” – from the COVID-19 pandemic challenging “our financial model” to “having to shrink and consolidate to ensure we can move forward again”.

As McDonald pointed out, the British Council always been “under pressure from many who don’t believe in the power of culture and education to build trust and drive change”, adding: “Most people have strong opinions about things we should or should not be doing”, including the media.

It is worth reading his post on LinkedIn in full and the discussion it provoked on LinkedIn, which proved his theory that everyone has an opinion about how the BC should be run.

Daily Mail distraction

Sometimes it provides all too easy a target. A recent example was the Daily Mail story about British Council, which emphasised that it received £189million from the Foreign Office to promote the nation to the world, reportedly telling staff not to refer to ‘Brits’ or ‘the Queen’s English’ in its ‘non-discriminatory’ guide – because “careless, uninformed or ill-considered use of language can categorise, marginalise, exclude or stereotype”. 

Of interest to me at least, the guide apparently advises against using the term ‘developing country’ and suggests using ‘lower-income’ or ‘middle-income country’, instead. And there was I thinking that we moved on from calling such nations ‘third-world countries’ by using ‘developing’ instead!

Of course, the timing of the Daily Mail piece was perfect for distracting attention from the potentially savage cuts facing the British Council, with the story published just three days after revelations about the British Council losing the Turing mobility scheme.

Outbid by Capita

Forcing a competitive tendering bidding war on who runs the UK Turing programme seemed unnecessary just months after the upheaval of ripping British student mobility away from the long-established European Union scheme.

And just going for lowest price  – Capita won the new 23-month Turing contract with bid worth £6.27m and will administer funding, which is worth up to £110 million over the 2022/23 academic year  – without looking at the consequences for the sustainability of the programme, knowledge of the main stakeholders and the longevity of the relationships built up between the British Council and overseas partner organisations, such as DAAD in Germany, seems short-sighted, as many experts told me for my University World News article.

Outsourcing giant Capita was always going to win such a competitive tendering process against the British Council with its global network and overheads, but Jo Grady, general secretary of the academic staff union, the University and College Union, hit the nail on the head, saying: “The Turing scheme is still finding its feet, and the priority must be delivering quality for students, not a race to the bottom.”

So, how serious a blow is losing the running of the Turing scheme for the British Council?

One insider told me: “We could never compete with our overheads and were miles off the successful bid from Capita, but Turing was much less valuable to us than losing Erasmus+, which covered so much more than just student mobility. 

“And compared with the loss of funding from our English & Exams business during the COVID-19 pandemic, the financial loss of not running Turing is a drop in the ocean, but it has implications for staff in Cardiff and things are still being worked out.”

Sub-contracting to Association of Commonwealth Universities 

Almut Caspary, the former higher education and science lead for the British Council in Europe, told me Capita’s announcement that they are going to use the Association of Commonwealth Universities as their principal sub-contractor ‘to lead on the assessment of applications and to support with monitoring and evaluation’ sent a clear message to Europe that Turing is ‘firmly oriented towards the rest of the world, not the EU’.

Whether it is wise to turn back the clock to the days of Imperial Britain and focus on the former British empire network is questionable, as most Turing-funded student mobility is expected to be for a couple of weeks rather than the three months or more under Erasmus. This it is hoped will encourage more disadvantaged young people to take part.

But short-term mobility is usually with near neighbours and those countries happen to be on the European mainland and not in India, Australia and the United States. And in these Covid-times is it sensible to rely on exchange partners far, far, far away?

Somehow, I am sure the British Council will survive and eventually prosper again, but it is in  for a hard-time in the short-term, or until the Brexiteers in Downing Street decide to throw in the towel and focus on making loads of money by using their time in government to advise private firms and organise more meetings that look very much a wine and cheese parties.

For the moment, we must rally round to protect the British Council and be ready for the day when we can start rebuilding Britain’s cultural and educational icon in earnest!

Main image: British Council

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