It's now ten years since young Alex Tew's idea for the Million Dollar Homepage took shape and we decided to support it. His slogan at the time was "Own a piece of Internet history" and despite the hype I think that was pretty fair. I would never have thought about it had it not been for a surge in mainly north American visitors overnight from that source, so I presume the anniversary made the news channels over there. I believe a fair number of the links on that page are now dead, but Alex evidently lives on - the man behind CALM.
Published for the first time last year we record a milestone: last night we passed 25,000 downloads. We've now given the guide its own website at EnglishinBritain.guide where you can browse the guide online. There's also a public counter there.
If you are going to go somewhere, or thinking of going somewhere for a while, you like to know what things look like. And we live in a visual age, when people are as likely to send a "selfie" or other picture to friends and family, whether directly or through social media, as send an email or, gulp, a letter as once we did. So we have announced this evening another arm to our English in Britain media suite - a gallery to show students the people, places, and activities they could encounter. English in Britain subscribers can upload unlimited pictures to their albums, and have videos embedded, and I hope we will build a great library here.
The English in Britain Gallery will be found at EnglishinBritain.gallery
The British Council has always denied that it competes unfairly, and indeed it is recorded in the recent Triennial Review that “The Chair of the British Council wrote to the Review Director categorically rebutting the complaint of unfair competition” – so we have denial plus preemptive denial. However those of us who work in education and have had close relationships with the organisation know not only that the British Council competes unfairly in any number of ways, but also that the British Council, including therefore the main board, the Board of Trustees and by extension the FCO, knows full well that this is so. But that is not the most important point.
Let us imagine for a moment that the playing field was levelled and that the British Council competed on an equal basis for contracts at home and abroad. Let us assume in that scenario that diplomatic representation played no part, and that no British Council employee including staff members from the “Chief Executive” to locally employed cleaners who derived their livelihood ultimately from the British taxpayer, performed any service for the commercial arm of the organisation, and that there was no subsidy or advantage through inter-governmental cultural agreements, shared premises or local taxation arrangements or any other factor, including pensions. In other words consider the purely theoretical possibility that competition from the British Council was clearly and transparently fair. How long do you think that would last? How likely is it that they could win contracts on merit and see off organisations founded on expertise such as CfBT, Pearson or Orbital Education, or professional educational publishing houses? The British Council has a long history of cocking things up (who else remembers English for Oman, English for Yemen, the ECCTIS 2000 database, their mess with Education UK and so on?). It is a history which has made them adept at denial, obfuscation and cover-up, and made them keen at every opportunity to play the diplomatic, charitable, public service card.
With the purpose of the organisation unclear (“We found little evidence that the current statement of purpose …had resonance outside the organisation”), the org points to its commercial success. But how has the outfit managed to grow its earnings so significantly? Its fee income has almost doubled in real terms over the past ten years (from about £275 million to £500 million) – which in international education is pretty smart work. So hands up if you believe that is because the British Council employs so many leading experts and crack managers that success is inevitable? And hands up if you think it might be something to do with queue-jumping, governmental and diplomatic contacts, snapping up contracts that never go to tender and other cosy deals, using grant-funded staff for commercial advantage, double dealing with UK companies, resources (financial and human) migrating from grant to commerce, and of course government branding? The question is rhetorical, or what in common parlance is known as a no-brainer. My contention is simply this: that for the British Council loss of unfair advantage in their commercial dealings would be nothing short of catastrophic.
What does this mean in the context of the recommendations of the Triennial Review? Well, to start with the TR hands the British Council a degree of unfair advantage on a plate when it says
We conclude that the British Council is indeed in a beneficial position in its relations with host governments by virtue of its extensive and long-standing networks but note that achieving such a position is part of its core purpose. While that can be seen as providing an unfair advantage over other UK commercial competitors, the Review does not believe that it would bring overall benefit to the UK and UK businesses to undermine the British Council’s advantageous network of relationships, but rather that that network needs to work for the benefit of all UK providers and that competition is as fair as possible.
i.e. we acknowledge that use of its contacts for commercial purposes isn’t fair, but we don’t want to have to make the only decision that could both support the networks and ensure fairness, which would be to resolve that the British Council stays out and, in a professional and disinterested manner, publicly notifies the UK companies and institutions most likely to benefit the client, and so help UK business, which pays for it. So it won’t happen. The likeliest outcome of this Triennial Review exercise is therefore that the BC will do what they are best at – prevaricate, obstruct and obfuscate in order maximally to dilute the TR recommendations and hang on to every bit of unfair competitive advantage that they can. That may sound cynical but in truth it is not. It will happen because it is absolutely vital if the British Council is to survive as what they like to call an “entrepreneurial public service”.
Take away the buoyancy provided by unfair competition, and the British Council ship will sink like a stone.
British businesses working in international education have a particular grievance with the British Council in that the taxes they pay are used by government to undermine them, and that will remain a burning issue until the practice stops and the British Council is reined in. But we should not forget that the subsidies paid by the British taxpayer undermine local business overseas, and not just in developed countries. Below is a letter we published eight years ago, and I commend it to your attention as it demonstrates the reality behind the rhetoric of the Council "building trust". The fact is that the British Council generates the same kind of resentment and damage overseas as it does here. Article follows:
As readers who have followed Levant Education’s progress in the past couple of years will know, we have continually faced an unethical, unfair competitor that has gone after the business that we established in Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iraq, Kurdistan.
At every step, the British Council acted as a supportive ‘charity’, only to then exploit the business opportunities we created with the ‘help’ of UK government agencies.
We are far from seeing an end to the unfair business practices, the abuse of taxpayer funding, the commercial exploitation of government offices, the tax avoidance, and exploitation of private businesses that go to the British government for assistance with international market penetration…but this is a step in the right direction.
Levant Education and companies all over the UK will continue to campaign for a fair crack at international education business that for years now has been cherry picked (or stolen) by the British Council.
Today the news of the Triennial Review, together with some commentary, was published on “Education Investor” which includes a selection of quotes from the report, and commentary from Patrick Watson of Montrose Associates, Sir Vernon Ellis who is chair of the British Council, and from yours truly. I trust Education Investor will not take me to be in breach of copyright if I reproduce the comments here: my point is that the comments demonstrate precisely why the British Council needs a new model of governance and leadership.
First, the comments:
Patrick Watson of Montrose Public Affairs welcomed the review. “There have always been concerns expressed by education providers directly to ministers that the British Council operates with a unfair advantage in the market.
“Providers have been unsure of the rules of engagement – when is the council working with them in partnership to promote British education interests, and when is it competing with them to secure commercial deals for itself.”
David Blackie, managing director of International Education Connect, which runs the course listings site English in Britain, said the review was "not radical enough to satisfy those who the council competes with", but a “step in the right direction”. “If the recommendations are carried out and acted upon with zeal there will be a new culture within the organisation,” he said.
Sir Vernon Ellis, chair of the British Council said: “We agree that our significant growth and the increased importance and complexity of our relations with government and other stakeholders has given rise to a number of important issues that need to be addressed.”
Compare and contrast. The two outsiders here are concerned about unfair competition, lack of clarity about the role of the organisation and the need for change, while the insider refers to “important issues” arising from the organisation’s “increased importance” vis-à-vis government. Has anybody really expressed concerns about increased importance? A keyword search in the report for “unfair competition” reveals that Sir Vernon wrote to the review director with a specific rebuttal of the notion of unfair competition. Why do you imagine he would do that? So let us at least eliminate this latest attempt at obfuscation. The important issues that need to be addressed are not (for heaven’s sake) a function of any “increased importance”, and despite the British Council Chair’s choice of language, are nothing new and are not of recent development. The ingrained problems lie in the habits of secrecy, obfuscation, narrow self-interest, misrepresentation and the use of multiple privileges to ensure a tilted playing field – a.k.a. unfair competition – wherever the organisation senses that there’s money to be made.
The FCO Triennial Review gets it. At some point the British Council trustees have to get it too.
I have read the executive summary and there may be more when I have read the full report. So here’s an initial response, and let’s start with the good.
- The report says there is “scope for more consistent delivery of high quality product across the board”.
- The report acknowledges that there are conflicts of interest in the org in acting as gatekeeper and advisor on projects which it may seize for itself and thus deny proper open competition.
- It says the Council needs a business model whereby it acts “transparently and accountably in line with its purpose as set out in the Royal Charter”.
- It recommends that the FCO “strengthen capability and and mechanisms to to exercise oversight of British Council activity”.
These are all points made on this blog for almost ten years so we are glad that something is at last to be done, or at least that a need is perceived. However the report fails to see the issue of competition,with genuine tax-paying British enterprise, from a government sponsored organisation, as the fundamental outrage that it is. Businesses work through enterprise, and prosper or die depending on their ability to manage market forces, their cash-flow, calculate risks and actions etc., and they pay taxes for the privilege of being UK based. The British Council receives money paid in tax by such enterprises, uses taxpayer-funded resources in terms of overseas representations to advance its commercial interests, enjoys subsidy, government support, multiple government contracts, tax advantages at home and overseas and civil service pension arrangements, and it also owns multiple overseas companies (USA, Mexico, Hong Kong, India etc.) to ensure that as little tax as possible is paid here. Since as a public body it can’t go under and all pensions will be paid etc. there is unlimited scope for moral hazard. It competes unfairly thanks to government indulgence.That is nothing short of outrageous.
One notion mooted in the review is the establishment of a “commercial, legal entity for income generating activity …with its own Board of Directors reporting to the main British Council Board”. No, no, no, no. The writers of this report appear not to understand the low standing of those who run this organisation. There are many others who could produce evidence of their lack of integrity, but let me give a few examples here:
- It was the British Council Board who (to my cost) told my entire client base that it had contracted a consortium of Hotcourses, UCAS, CSU and Yahoo. That was untrue. It had in fact contracted a £100 company “Education Websites Ltd”. In the contract it states specifically that UCAS and CSU were to play no role of any kind. There is no mention anywhere, in the contract or the shareholding, of Yahoo. It was a malicious misrepresentation designed to promote the commercial interests of the British Council at the expense of legitimate British business.
- It was the British Council who advised me, IN ANSWER TO A FoI ENQUIRY in 2005, and so on behalf of its board, that there had been no changes to the (Education Websites) contract it had signed in 2001. In fact it had just signed a new contract with a different company (Sheffield Data Ltd).
- At the time when the British Council advised me that there had been no changes to their contract with Education Websites Ltd, a crude attempt was being made to bury that company and put it out of sight. A company called Remone Ltd was incorporated in early 2005 which then swapped names with Education Websites Ltd, so that anyone who did investigate that company would get taken off the scent. Most traces of this appear to have been removed now from Companies House, although the facts can still be proved.
- At a time when the British Council Chief David Green, and the Chair of Trustees Lord Kinnock told parliamentary committees that grant-in-aid money and its commercial activities were completely separate and even that it was “impossible” for grant money to subsidise its commercial activities, grant money was being used to pay the fees of Gaddafi’s cronies at the Council’s own school in Tripoli. That was revealed through an FoI enquiry.
- When the British Council trustees undertook a “thorough and independent investigation” of my complaints they appointed an insider who was actually given paid employment by them while at the same time supposedly investigating complaints against them. This “investigator” interviewed me twice, but interviewed nobody, not one soul - much less the management responsible - from the British Council, and did not mention my specific complaints, much less address them in his “report”. And finally he recommended that I should be paid £10,000 in “expenses”. There was a clear case for the trustees rejecting this non-report, and at the very least enquiring why they should pay £10,000 in expenses when no expenses had been claimed. But no, they wanted me to take the money and shut up. Bad move, guys. And shame on you. It was not only not thorough and not independent, it was a bloody disgrace.
There’s plenty more where that came from. The FCO must this time do the job properly, and work with people of quality.
Remember this?: “We’ve received an initial draft from the Foreign Office, it’s a very, very long document and our Board hasn’t even had a chance to discuss it yet. I don’t think I can promise that there is going to be a great announcement about it in the immediate future, largely because this first draft needs a lot of work doing to it before we can even discuss it properly. We’re having a lot of conversations with the FCO and there is still a lot of water to flow under the bridge.”
It may have been Davidson’s predecessor that started the absurd monthly propaganda circulars that are inflicted on all employees of the British Council. Mr Davidson, now “Sir Martin”, was happy to continue in the same vein of puffery (thankfully sparing readers news of any recent taxpayer-funded painting holidays or publishing samples of his oeuvres from Santiago de Compostela and other sorties) but in recent times the preferred model has been the sycophantic interview. In March (see above) he indicated that he was busy negotiating the content of the Triennial Review with the FCO. It was, after all, “very, very long” and needed “a lot of work doing to it”.
But, hello, look at the change of tune when the latest interviewer tries to extract an update.
Q. Can you say a bit more about what’s happening with the Triennial Review, which may have quite an impact on us in the future? Has there been progress?
A. It’s important to remember that this is not our report and it’s up to the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) to publish the report, not us. I’m hoping they will do so soon.
Q. Have we got an agreed draft then? Previous updates to staff internally have said that the report is still in draft form and that we are in conversation with the FCO to iron out some inconsistencies.
A. It’s not for us to agree the draft and I am quite certain that there will be are [sic] aspects of the final report that we don’t agree with at all. But at the moment the report has not been finalised and as soon as it is we will let people know.
It looks as though an element of humility, or possibly discipline, has at last crept in to the demeanour of the British Council board. “This is not our report” and “It’s not for us to agree the draft” strike a new note. So in fact he wasn't having a lot of conversations with the FCO, or negotiating, or busy ironing out the FCO's inconsistencies. Perhaps the ungrateful FCO turned down his offer of help. Or perhaps the new trustee from the FCO just told him to pipe down.
But arrogance and bluster are never far away. Elsewhere in the interview the CEO reverts to type with such as this:
We also need to demonstrate that we operate in a fair and open way and that we are open to influence from people. We don’t pretend that we get everything right all the time and when we get things wrong we fix it.
I would urge readers to go to the original but in summary the areas of discomfort identified by the PA include two points not unknown on this blog over the past nine years:
The submission closes with a generous way forward, asking for greater transparency in the organisation’s commercial logic and its accounting, and better external control (please note, FCO, that the combination of select committees with different agendas and supine “trustees” does not work). We would put it differently from the PA in that in our view the organisation is discredited, untrustworthy and out of order, and we would like to see more radical action. But there is a clear consensus around the view that the British Council is presently out of line and enjoying unacceptable privileges to the detriment of genuine British business, and this cannot be allowed to continue.
And to the FCO we would say this: please do not allow the British Council to obstruct, obfuscate and prevaricate any longer, and give all of us – not just those of us who work in international education but schools and publishers and training organisations and exhibition organisers and consultants at home and abroad and the fatigued taxpayer - the report and the outcome that Britain deserves.
The Lords have issued their report on soft power and said what a jolly good thing soft power is, and what a lucky bunch we are to have the BBC and the British Council. In an excellent piece in today’s Scotsman, Tiffany Jenkins points up futility of using what the British Council refers to as “cultural relations” as a substitute for foreign policy backed up by robust values.
The context could hardly be more telling. This is the UK-Russia Year of Culture, the Russians are in Crimea, the British Council is trying to drown the concerns of their employers about accountability and fair trade, and anyway currently focused on how to pay themselves more, and the Lords are cheering them on. It is indicative and a symptom of the West having lost its way morally, militarily, diplomatically and culturally.
The good thing about the Lords report is that it reminds the Home Office that including students in their hallowed (and hollow) immigration statistics, and supposedly bringing down “immigration” by squeezing student numbers, is counterproductive, misleading and bad for Britain’s educational institutions. But any bloody fool can see that. The Lords also trot out the standard British Council lines about building trust, when – as we here and countless others have pointed out – it is patently obvious that you can’t build trust without being trustworthy, and in that regard the British Council falls at the first fence.
As Tiffany Jenkins says “The elephant in the room is that soft power has failed”. The Lords report is a typical irrelevance of a strutting government describing itself as a “modern-day cultural superpower” while it dismantles its armed forces, weary from being sent to fight wars which had nothing to do with Britain's defence, and puts its faith in the self-serving antics of the British Council. The loss of a sense of direction is palpable.The report, written by the overprivileged superannuated, is an exercise in navel diplomacy: of the effete, by the effete and for the effete.
Read Tiffany’s article here.
“…the key features of the new package will be a market-linked salary and bonus opportunity together with a defined contribution pension scheme…. Our overall costs would most likely increase but we feel that investing in our offer to staff is vital if the organisation is to achieve its long term ambitions.”
“we are at a very early stage of this work and have not yet started to discuss our proposal with Government. We want to first consult with colleagues internally and with TUS before we approach Treasury. We cannot be sure whether the response from Treasury will be favourable but we feel we have a strong case to make.”
While as we know the British Council are having “a lot of conversations” with their FCO bosses about the Triennial Review, they have - it says here - not raised the subject of their new salary structure. They have , they say, a strong case to make, but they are not making it just yet presumably because they have been distracted by a “very, very long” document which calls into question their accountability, their transparency and their ability to trade fairly. As soon as that little hiccough is out of the way they can get on with the business of paying themselves more and restructuring their privileges even more favourably. Yes, it will cost more, but who cares when the taxpayer is footing the bill?
So where does that leave “The Triennial Review”? If we thought it was significant (and I confess I had rather hoped it was) then we were evidently wrong. It evidently has little bearing on the British Council’s plans to pay itself better and use its subsidy and privileges to make life harder for genuine enterprise. As I have said before, by genuine enterprise I mean the kind that uses its own money, that carries its own overhead, that operates without gifted contracts and privileges of every kind, that makes it own pension arrangements and which has only its own resources to fall back on when the going gets tough. It does not refer to the featherbedded, subsidised, privileged parasites who play at commerce knowing that however incompetent they may be (oh yes they are) they will always be comfortably bailed out. And now will probably get a bonus on top.
Their FCO bosses and the Treasury should a) make it clear that the BC has no business to be floating this plan with their staff while the Triennial Review is pending and while fundamental issues of transparency, accountability and fair trade are being addressed, and b) tell them where to stick it.
Do you remember the Triennial Review? On this blog I urged interested parties to contribute to the debate and I have no doubt plenty did. It was announced in September (and you can still see it here) that “The Review Team will report to the Government on their findings before the end of the year.”
They meant last year of course, and it hasn’t happened. Why? Well, the British Council head man, Sir Martin “hey, call me Marty” Davidson, has offered the following explanation to his understandably concerned British Council colleagues.
“We’ve received an initial draft from the Foreign Office, it’s a very, very long document and our Board hasn’t even had a chance to discuss it yet. I don’t think I can promise that there is going to be a great announcement about it in the immediate future, largely because this first draft needs a lot of work doing to it before we can even discuss it properly. We’re having a lot of conversations with the FCO and there is still a lot of water to flow under the bridge. I know it’s frustrating for people but I have to ask colleagues to be patient and recognise that just because a draft has been completed it doesn’t mean it’s right for wider circulation, not just within the British Council but anywhere else either.”
There are of course some dopes in the organisation, including presumably the supine “trustees”, who will find such an explanation credible, but for most it is the standard insult to intelligence. The organisation is delaying distribution of the report because it doesn’t like it. He says “it is very, very long”. I bet it uses lots of long words too. He says the board “hasn’t even had a chance to discuss it yet”. Pull the other one, Marty boy. You also say “we’re having a lot of conversations with the FCO, and there is still a lot of water to flow under the bridge”. So, it’s very long (well, actually very, very long), and despite the fact that they haven’t discussed it yet, they are having lots of conversations with the FCO. And the board are playing pooh-sticks in order to pass the time (and get the review changed).
So, what is the problem exactly? Marty says there are “challenges”.
“Those challenges are around transparency, fair trade, accountability and alignment with government policy, which are all issues that we know and recognise and have been part of our conversations internally for a number of years. There are no surprises and we just need to carry on thinking through how we respond to those challenges as an organisation.”
After the board has met to discuss the review presumably. There’s a sort of poetry here which dear Marty doesn’t get. If you stand accused of lack of transparency, unfair trade and lack of accountability, and these accusations – voiced pretty much universally elsewhere which is why there are “no surprises” - are articulated in an authoritative report, the natural response is to obfuscate, prevaricate and procrastinate. QED, Marty lad, QED.
Please, dear reader, would you consider reviewing our App? Two kind people have (unprompted) given us some encouragement and 5 stars, and these are helpful, but a few more would be very welcome. Just click on the screenshot above and then where the arrow points and off you go.
I'm new to app publishing (APP-rentice?), so at the risk of boring the experienced app-people let me report on a few things that I have noticed.
1. Everything takes longer. You make a change on a website and the change is instant. Make a change to an app (which I have to ask my developers to do anyway) and Google Play is pretty quick, a couple of hours maybe, but the Appstore takes a week. Yes, a week, even for the most minor change. We published version 1.05 on Google a week ago, but as I write it's not in the Appstore yet.
2. The app is attributed publicly to the developer rather than the publisher. Thus ours says Pipe and Piper rather than International Education Connect because they are the ones with the app store accounts. So a slight miff factor, and a bit odd, but not a problem.
3. The download numbers given are a nonsense. OK you can't get them from Apple, but it took a couple of weeks for Google to reach 10 when the developers and I between us had probably downloaded the app more times than that in the first week as we were doing upgrades to 1.01, 1.02 etc.
On the plus side you can go back to an app after a few days and open the same page of data you left when you last used it, and of course it's fast. These days the website is so fast it hardly matters, but I mention it anyway.
Your support is much appreciated.
Months of work and we now have a new English in Britain website and an app for iOS and Android mobile devices.
The new website is more than a facelift. We have had a programme re-write and added new functionality so that students and agents can register and keep records of "favourite" schools and courses.
The app has a related but nevertheless slightly different design and functionality. Both items are very fast, but the app is superfast. And while I half expected the launch to push our Guide into the background, in fact downloads have accelerated quite sharply.
What's the point of three products? Three routes to school data are better than one, and there are different strokes for different folks. All three - the responsive design website, the iOS and Android app, and the Guide (a PDF offering the user 1000 hyperlinks to data direct from their desktops) - break new ground in the promotion of British ELT.
In my own evidence to the Lords Committee on "Soft Power" I wrote (inter alia) "Just as we as individuals need to focus on what we are rather than worry about our reputations, so countries seeking influence over others need to focus above all on what they do, and not concern themselves with the message". The British Council sees itself as an instrument of soft power, and as a direct consequence of its perception of its role and its construct as an arm of the FCO, works precisely against the interests of Britain, its integrity and the interests of its enterprises - and of those overseas. I won't reproduce David Mitchell's excellent article here, and would invite readers to take in the evidence given by the German, Norwegian, Japanese and Brazilian ambassadors. You do not want a "soft power" policy, much less a bunch of quasi-governmental parasites posing as instruments of soft power. Read the good sense of these men who are not lumbered with trying to justify an anachronistic propaganda-driven handicap such as the British Council.
In the "one size fits all" world of the British Council, standard forms are issued to all parties, and the organisation that sees nothing wrong in piggybacking on other people's businesses apparently also sees nothing wrong in asking Azeris registering for an exhibition whether their first language is Filipino and whether they heard about the exhibition out and about in Manila.
More on the crass org here.