A new report from the British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group calls for an ambitious, sophisticated and well-funded soft power approach to enable the UK to capitalise on the significant global opportunities for UK trade, diplomacy and leadership over the next decade.  

Chairman of the British Council APPG, John Baron MP, gives a summary of the Group’s report, ‘Opportunities for Global Britain’:

The British Government’s Integrated Review sets out a new and welcome ambition to promote a truly Global Britain – confident on the world stage and capable of rallying others to its cause. 

The Review also recognises that our soft power capabilities are key to realising the Government’s ambition. Despite a particularly challenging eighteen months, there are numerous achievements we can celebrate that remind us of the considerable cultural, educational and soft power assets of Great Britain. Among these are the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine and genome sequencing as well as recent tennis, Olympic and Paralympic successes.  

In response to the Integrated Review, the British Council APPG launched an inquiry into the opportunities for the UK on the world stage over the next decade. We found them to be plentiful and wide-ranging. 

The British Council has a key role in allowing the UK to capitalise on those opportunities, sitting as it should at the heart of plans for an ambitious, outward-looking foreign policy. As a small but clear part of that, the APPG continues to believe that there should be no further closures to the organisation’s international network and that the existing closures are detrimental to Britain’s long-term interest.

The reasons for wanting to protect that network are clear and numerous. To take just two examples from the report, it is worth considering how the British Council is delivering for the UK in both the kind of high-growth economies with which we all want to secure trade deals and in some of the world’s more contested spaces. 

High-growth economies

By some estimates, six of the seven largest economies in the world by 2050 will be countries currently classified as ‘emerging market economies’, led by China, India and Indonesia.  

As these markets grow and mature, so will demand for the high-quality goods and services which characterise UK exports. As nations transition from industrial to ‘knowledge-based’ economies, more reliant on information, skills, and innovation, greater currency is placed on education and creativity – once again, strong areas for Britain. 

Our report found that the UK is well-placed to meet the needs of growing, increasingly affluent middle classes in Africa and Asia who are in search of quality tertiary education, both by attracting them to the UK as international students and by offering high-quality Transnational Education in-country. 

Although the UK is an attractive destination for international students, particularly from the Indo-Pacific, young people from the region are increasingly looking closer to home, with providers in East Asia and the Pacific hosting a growing proportion of the world’s globally mobile students.  Research from the British Council shows that exposure to and experience of the UK – especially cultural experiences – makes it more likely that young people will choose to study here.  Creating opportunities for cultural engagement with these countries can therefore support higher education providers to grow and diversify their international student base. 

Interest in these high growth economies in the social and economic benefits of the creative industries themselves is also rising. For example, the ASEAN Strategic Plan for Culture 2016-2025 shows that the bloc collectively recognise that arts and culture have both commercial and cultural value and the power to build more inclusive, connected, and prosperous societies.

To make the most of these opportunities, the APPG recommends increased flexibility in the visa system for international students, such as the new Graduate Route post-study work visa, which extends permission for students to stay in the UK after graduation. This policy change has already had a significant impact on visa applications from key markets such as India, with room to grow this cohort and others.

More widely, joined-up, well-funded export strategies to support the UK’s world-leading creative industries to reach new markets overseas and to collaborate with international partners to meet the rising demand for British cultural goods and expertise will capitalise on the reputation of British creativity abroad. 

Contested arenas

Elsewhere in the world, the picture is more challenging. For the first time since 2001, autocratic countries are home to a majority (54%) of the global population, with a further 35% living in countries that are becoming increasingly autocratic.  

The UK has a firm tradition of ‘show don’t tell’ when it comes to the way we talk about our values overseas. Creativity, inclusion and innovation– often shared through culture and media - are all means through which the UK can express its values without being overly demonstrative.

In Russia, long-term connections based on mutual respect for each other’s culture can maintain dialogue between the UK and Russia during one of the most-strained periods for bilateral relations since the Cold War. 

For example, following the success of the inaugural Russia-UK University Rectors forum in 2019, organised by the Russian Rectors Union, UUKi, the Russian Embassy and the British Council, a return delegation of representatives and Vice Chancellors from Russian universities will visit the UK in Autumn 2021. 

This initiative demonstrates that collaboration is valued by higher education institutions in both countries and represents a commitment to strengthen future cooperation. 

The rise of China is the most significant long-term trend in geopolitics and economics and requires a proactive, strategic and consistent response. 

Despite growing tensions, the UK has an opportunity to build connections with people in China through depoliticised channels such as culture and education. Across all G20 nations, Chinese young people rank the UK second as a place to study, second as a source of arts and culture and third as a place to do business or trade. 

Through these relationships and that exposure to the UK and its values, we are able to engage China’s next generation in some of the big questions that face them, and us, from climate change to the importance of open discussion and debate. 

However, sadly research shows that in every forum through which it currently engages – diplomacy, trade, people-to-people - the UK does so from position of deficit. China knows more about the UK than UK does of China. 

This is something that we should all work hard to change and Government, educators and others should come together to identify urgent measures to improve China literacy in the UK across all professions and sectors of society – especially among young people. There is a clear role here for the British Council, which is well-placed to provide young people with the language and intercultural skills they need to gain a deeper understanding of China and to aid interaction and engagement with its people.   

To maximise the value from these and other opportunities for Britain on the world stage, we encourage the Government to indicate its support for our tools of soft power by setting out a clear soft power strategy and providing an ambitious funding package for organisations like the British Council across both ODA and non-ODA categories at the autumn Comprehensive Spending Review. This vote of confidence from the new Secretary of State would allow our soft power experts at the British Council to get on with what they do best – delivering the long term connections and networks that will make the idea of Global Britain both real and tangible. We have little time to lose.   

Read full the British Council APPG report ‘Opportunities for Global Britain’

The views stated in this article of those of the British Council APPG.