Go back

Free at last?

The British Council finds its voice

There was a somewhat tense atmosphere at the start of last week’s Going Global conference of higher education leaders in Dubai.*

The meeting’s organisers from the British Council arrived knowing there had been a 20 per cent fall in student visas to the UK, according to the latest quarterly migration figures. Furthermore, as universities and science minister David Willetts stepped up to address some 1,600 academics, ministers, civil servants and policy advisers, he would have just heard that three UK universities have dropped out of the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings.

Ordinarily the British Council, whose role includes attracting international researchers and students to the UK, would have fretted in private but kept silent in public—a wise policy given its close links to governments all over the world. This time it was different. The council issued a statement that could be seen at the very least as voicing concern about the impact of UK government higher education and migration policies.

In the statement, the council said it regrets seeing fewer UK universities in the 100-strong list, and is concerned that fewer student visas are being issued. “Our higher education institutions work so hard to build a strong global reputation and any damage to this reputation will not only be their loss but will be felt by the UK economy and society as a whole.”

There was more. Before the conference, the council published the results of a survey confirming a little-talked-of fact: that students from the UK are less likely to consider studying abroad than their peers in other countries. In fact, the council is publishing a web portal to help more UK students consider studying overseas.

The council has clearly decided it needs to become more assertive, and this can in part be attributed to a slow but deliberate process of achieving financial independence. Like most government-funded organisations in the UK, the council has had to weather cuts. But, because it generates three-quarters of its annual £739-million turnover on its own—through teaching English around the world for example—a shrinking public grant, though tough to absorb, is worth the pain as it will eventually allow the body to set its own agenda and chart its own course.

This had already begun to happen after the 2010 election when the council amended its three core priorities. Under Labour, these were climate change, intercultural dialogue and the knowledge economy, reflecting the UK’s global priorities at the time. Two of these (climate change and intercultural dialogue), though meaning well, did not always play well in the developing world—especially the latter, brought in around the same time as the UK and US led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The council’s priorities now are the arts, education and the English language—altogether clearer and playing to its strengths. The presence in the White House of a Democrat with no appetite for international conflict helps, too, as it means that the council no longer has to say sorry for UK involvement in US-led military invasions.

*Disclosure: Research Fortnight editor Ehsan Masood is a member of the Going Global steering committee.