he future of the British Council, a key promoter of international education globally, could be in jeopardy due to the impact of the coronavirus crisis on its operations and ability to raise revenue unless the government provides emergency funding, according to the Public and Commercial Services Union.
The union launched a campaign to save the body last month in order to safeguard jobs, put on hold redundancies and secure additional funding.
The British Council, the union warns, has been “devastated by a huge drop in income following the closure of most of its overseas schools due to the coronavirus pandemic” and furloughed a quarter of employees and announced it intended to let go 15% of non-permanent or fixed-term employees.
The British Council’s mission includes encouraging cultural, scientific, technological and other educational cooperation and advancing education. It is a key promoter of international higher education globally via its annual Going Global conference and policy and research reports and is a key provider of English language teaching, which is an important contributor to mobility in higher education and supports working abroad.
Founded in 1934, the non-departmental public body assists in the teaching of English in more than 50 countries and employs 1,175 staff, 938 of whom are employed within the UK.
In the past year more than four million people have taken an English exam with the council generating £125 million (US$152 million) for UK exam bodies and in the last financial year the income of the council exceeded £1.25 billion (US$1.52 billion).
However, the necessary measures taken in relation to COVID-19 have resulted in the closure of 203 out of 221 schools run by the British Council as well as the closure of 26 out of 41 test centres.
An early day motion put forward in parliament and backed by a cross-party group of 32 members of parliament notes that the closures have had a “devastating impact on the financial reserves of the council, with funding likely to run out by May”.
It says the Foreign and Commonwealth Office “has provided some additional funding; however this is unlikely to enable the Council to survive post COVID-19 due to a continued funding gap which may lead to mass redundancies and pay cuts in the near future”.
It calls on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to commit to “immediate, long-term funding to ensure the continuation of this vital British organisation”.
More than 1,300 people have written to the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, raising their concerns.
The University Council of General and Applied Linguistics, which represents the academic community for linguistics and English language in the UK, has also written to the foreign secretary asking how he and his department intend to support the work of this “important institution in the current situation”, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCSU) reported.
On 14 May PCSU reported that since its campaign had begun, the British Council had announced it would suspend the consultation process for redundancies, which it had intended to continue with during lockdown, and furlough, giving a temporary reprieve to more than 20 staff who were at risk of losing their jobs.
Government ‘remains committed’
In a letter to PCSU, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Permanent Under-Secretary Simon McDonald said the FCO “remains committed to the British Council” and has agreed to provide additional funding for the 2019-20 financial year to help stabilise their immediate financial position.
“We will also be providing some of their 2020-21 grant-in-aid funding upfront in April to further alleviate pressures,” he said.
However, the union says that although additional funding has been provided by the FCO, the funding gap remains at £40 million a month for four to five months until operations abroad can reopen. “If additional money is not forthcoming, we do not believe the council will be able to continue paying staff wages from June.”
It also remains concerned that the government will attach conditions to any further additional funding granted, such as a pay freeze, wage reductions and redundancies.
“Such cuts could destroy the much-valued work of the council and could potentially impact on the money that it generates for the UK economy,” the union says.