Britain rescues its ‘soft-power’ branch after heavy COVID blow

LONDON (Reuters) – The UK Treasury has stepped in to rescue the British Council from the brink of insolvency amid coronavirus woes, but it probably needs a longer-term solution, the chief executive of the country’s international cultural and education agency says.

For more than 80 years, the British Council has taught English and run libraries, cultural programmes and arts festivals in all corners of the world, becoming an influential “soft-power” extension of UK foreign policy.

In China, large parts of south Asia, Africa and Latin America, its English courses are seen as a gold standard for achieving the fluency needed to live and work in Britain.

But the coronavirus pandemic forced the Council to shut more than 200 examination centres and suspend teaching in much of the world, hammering its finances. Exams and class fees constitute around 60% of its 1.25 billion pound ($1.55 billion) annual revenue.

The Treasury stepped in last week with a 60 million pound loan to tide it over, but with no clarity over how long the pandemic will last the future remains uncertain.

“The 60 million is an intermediate step in a conversation about the longer-term needs of this organisation,” Ciaran Devane, the Council’s chief executive, told Reuters, adding that the terms of the loan were still being worked out.

“The one year is survivable for most institutions, including our own. The longer-term answer depends to what degree things shift permanently.”

Devane said that if the Council could get through this financial year, a longer-term financial settlement, probably involving an extended loan “would be critical”.

Post-Brexit, as Britain seeks to exert itself as a stand-alone entity in the world, the Council has a significant role to play in promoting cultural values.

Devane said he saw no lessening of the UK’s cultural standing post-Brexit, and the world’s desire to learn English is insatiable. But the way the British Council operates may have to change, with more online education and distance teaching.

“The challenge going forward is not just the pandemic, it is how in a world that is more fragmented, where the conversation around values is shifting, how we continue to engage on those issues going forward,” he said.

Reporting and photo: Reuters

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