A dozen woman standing outside an 'adult literacy centre' sign
A dozen woman standing outside an 'adult literacy centre' sign ©

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Main photo credit: Image © Crown Copyright.

Although we operated in Iran from the 1940s, we turned our attention to the rest of South Asia in the early 1950s. 

At this time, severe budget cuts forced us to curtail our activities elsewhere around the world. However, additional funds were provided to strengthen and maintain our ties with the commonwealth states in South Asia. 

By our 25th anniversary in 1959, South Asia received the largest share of British Council funds of any region. 

Since then, we have continued to deliver programmes and projects in collaboration with those living in this increasingly fast moving and evolving region. 

Innovation in English

Until the 1940s, English was widely spoken across India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, owing to Britain’s status as the colonial power. Following the transition to independence, the use of English became a more contentious issue. 

Therefore, we did not teach English directly in these countries. Instead, we acted as an advisory body on English language teaching, providing advice and resources to educational ministries and institutions.

In contrast, our operation in Iran had a strong focus on direct English teaching in British Council Institutes. This was very successful: in 1978 – the year before we were forced to leave Iran – we had a record number of students visiting our centre. 

This was the first region in which we collaborated with other educational agencies. In partnership with the Ford Foundation, we established the Central English Language Institute in Hyderabad in 1957.

Across the whole region, we maintained a number of well used libraries, which provided a range of educational and literary publications. 

Technology was used to reach a wider audience. Educational TV programmes were produced in India and Iran throughout the 1960’s, and we produced radio shows in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 


Despite out distance from politics, there have been occasions when we have been affected by wider political events. 

We were forced to leave Iran in 1952 during the Abadan Crisis, sealing our doors and windows with wax to prevent disturbance. We returned within three years to resume teaching English, and the country still remains a priority for our cultural relations work. 

The Bangladeshi War of Independence was another challenging time for our work in the region. In 1971, our library in Dacca was attacked, and the premises were largely destroyed. Further escalations prompted our office in Rawalpindi to be placed under the protection of 40 police officers, and the evacuation of all staff in East Pakistan. Despite this, we returned the following year, establishing activities suited to the new state’s requirements. 

Aid and Co-operation

Our growing reputation in the delivery of educational services led to a considerable expansion of work in 1970s, when we administered a range of projects on behalf the Overseas Development Ministry (now DfID).

We also managed projects on behalf of international bodies; for example we ran primary education activities in Bangladesh with support from the World Bank.

During this period we also supported UK participants on the Voluntary Service Overseas scheme, who were working in the region, mainly on teaching placements. 

We also managed applications for the Colombo plan, an international collaborative project which aimed to provide and develop technical skills in states across Asia and the Pacific. 

In Iran, we managed a fellowship scheme. This involved bringing Iranian lecturers to the UK to receive postgraduate qualifications, who would later return to senior positions in Iran’s expanding universities.