Briefing 04: The British Council’s financial difficulties

  1. The Chief Executive Officer of the British Council has announced it will reduce or withdraw operations in twenty countries due to financial issues, brought on by Covid-19.  The British Council is a British government funded non-departmental public body, which builds connections, understanding and trust between people in the United Kingdom (UK) and other countries through arts and culture, education and the promotion of the English language.
  1. Due to loss of revenue from its language education courses, and reduction in funding from Her Majesty’s (HM) Government, the British Council has accepted that job losses and reduction in services are unavoidable. Kate Ewart-Briggs, Interim Chief Executive Officer, made clear in a statement on the 24th June that redundancies would be coming over the next 12-24 months.
  1. This statement is the culmination of tension surrounding the British Council’s ongoing financial difficulties. Earlier in the month on 8th June John Baron MP was granted an Urgent Question on the the closures of British Council offices in up to twenty overseas offices. Mr Baron suggested that the failure of the Government to provide the £10 million shortfall was ‘not in keeping with the concept of Global Britain’.
  1. HM Government had already increased the grant to the British Council by 26% in 2020, and made clear that it was unwilling to provide a further increase. Nigel Adams MP, the Minister for Asia, specified that the British Council needed to adapt and to streamline its governance structures.
  1. Sir Edward Leigh raised the fact that while Britain is reducing its focus and spending on cultural power, other nations are increasing it. He drew attention to the fact that France and Germany have been increasing their cultural power efforts through their French Institutes and Goethe Institutes respectively. He could have also mentioned the People’s Republic of China and Russia with their Confucius Institutes and Russkiy Mir Foundations, whose reach has grown substantially over the past decade.
  1. In a 2018 report the British Council concluded in a report on ‘Soft power superpowers’ that the UK was the leading global soft power. Although this is an incorrect use of the term ‘soft power’, it is true that Britain is one of the great cultural and normative powers in the world. The report also shows that the UK has decreased funding at a time when other powers are maintaining or evening increasing spending on their cultural diplomacy.
  1.  When combined with HM Government’s recent decision to reduce Overseas Development Aid, the British Council’s financial difficulties could impinge on its ability to project UK culture, principles and values around the world.
  1. If the world is heading into the competitive age outlined by the Integrated Review, the UK should not allow countries such as Russia and the PRC – even France and Germany – to overtake it in cultural diplomacy. Although the British Council may need some restructuring and redirecting of priorities – as well as a more assertive approach in its promotion of the UK – it is nevertheless a vital tool if the Integrated Review is to be put into effect. To abandon the British Council’s ongoing cultural efforts would undermine British normative power and weaken the Foreign Office’s broader diplomatic efforts worldwide.

John Dobson is Policy Relations and Events Coordinator at the Council on Geostrategy


This publication should not be considered in any way to constitute advice. It is for knowledge and educational purposes only. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council on Geostrategy or the views of its Advisory Council.