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British Council faces financial ruin due to coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has hit U.K. institutions hard, including the British Council, which faces collapse | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Cultural and diplomatic institution depends on government cash injection to survive.

LONDON — The British Council is running out of cash due to the coronavirus lockdowns worldwide and is in talks with the U.K. government over long-term emergency funding.

The pandemic has forced the British Council to shut down 44 out of its 47 English language schools and 195 of 223 test centers around the world, according to a spokesperson for the organization. This has cut off its main source of income and created a substantial budget deficit.

The British Council is a public body funded by the Foreign Office and a charity that promotes the learning of English, funds research and training of English teachers and runs culture diplomacy events. It has already received £26 million of emergency funding from the government on top of its annual grant of £161 million, and has furloughed 18 percent of its roughly 1,175-strong U.K. workforce.

However, the Public and Commercial Services Union and parliamentarians have raised concerns that this will not fill the funding gap and reserves might run out by the end of May.

The organization is holding talks with officials over long-term emergency funding, but one said the government wants to wait until the full impact of the pandemic is clear before committing extra money.

A spokesperson for the British Council said, “COVID-19 has had a significant impact on our finances. We’re grateful for the short-term funding from the U.K. government and we are in constructive talks with the government to identify a long-term solution.”

‘Enlightened self-interest’

In the 2019-20 financial year, the British Council managed to increase its income to £1.33 billion from £1.25 billion the previous year, despite a 9.5 percent cut in the government’s grant.

Crossbench peer Jean Coussins, who co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, urged the government to rescue the British Council.

“Further support is essential before the end of May to ensure that the organization has a future,” she said. “If ever there was a case for a government bailout based on enlightened self-interest, it is this.”

“I hope the conversations [with government] pay off very rapidly because it is the end of May that is the crucial cut-off date for the British Council to know where it stands financially in order to know whether it can continue its work, so this is very urgent,” she added.

The PCS union, which has launched a campaign to save the British Council, fears mass redundancies and pay cuts might be looming. The British Council employs about 12,000 staff in more than 100 countries.

The University Council of Modern Languages, which represents modern languages scholars, has written to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, saying, “everything the Council undertakes across its many schemes and programs responds in a direct and concrete way to the government’s Global Britain strategy.”

UCML’s chair Claire Gorrara said, “The British Council has been the biggest ambassador for British culture and values abroad through its English language teaching programs and cultural diplomacy. That would be a massive challenge for the U.K. higher education sector given that we are going to be facing a very, very big change in terms of Brexit and the loss of international partnerships.

“The British Council is one of the most trusted British institutions abroad with many, many years of experience and relationships, and it would in some extent undermine Global Britain’s strategy if one of its most effective and successful ambassadorial arms effectively is lost.”

A spokesman for the Foreign Office said the government is helping the British Council in accessing job retention schemes to enable them to furlough staff, in addition to the £26 million of emergency funding.

“This will help it support its workforce, and those employed through its partners, who are normally funded through its commercial side. The British Council is a precious part of the [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] family, and we will continue to support it and help identify solutions,” the spokesman said.

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