This is above all a public health crisis, and our first thoughts are with those affected and for the safety of our staff and the people we work with in the UK and around the world.
COVID-19 has changed how we all live, and it has changed how the British Council operates.
Just as our partners in the cultural and educational sectors have had to close their doors, so our offices, teaching centres and libraries around the world have had to suspend normal operations.
Courses, examinations, exhibitions, conferences and performances have all been cancelled or postponed. Major cultural and educational events which we support like the Edinburgh International Festival, the London Book Fair and Going Global have been curtailed. Most importantly many of the young people we work with globally have had their lives disrupted and have been unable to complete vital programmes.
In response to this, the British Council is innovating at a pace you might not expect from an 86-year-old organisation:
We have adapted to deliver virtual English teaching in almost 90 per cent of our teaching centres, including teacher development MOOCs, revised online lesson plans, specialist teacher support, and training courses for educators working with refugees and migrants. Between 1 February – 9 April 2020, young learners engaged in online teaching rose from zero to 36,000 students, with around 10,000 more students joining every week since.
We are mobilising our networks, sharing high quality, free education resources at home and overseas through the world’s largest English teacher community to give educators the tools they need to deliver online tuition.
In Ethiopia where access to the internet is poor, our team has televised English lessons and lessons focused on the Sustainable Development Goals and offers a free telephone tutorial service to students.
British Council South Africa is using WhatsApp to provide Learn English materials to parents, guardians and caregivers, and with DFID funding, plan to expand the programme to engage 500,000 users in southern African countries in the coming months.
We are harnessing our programmes and relationships to respond, such as in Pakistan where 5,000 of our Active Citizens mobilised to participate in Mission Essar which aims to help 100,000 families affected by the crisis.
Working with the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) we are piloting remote invigilation for foundation exams that will let candidates sit their exams at home whilst test centres remain closed, enabling ACCA to resume their business in certain markets worldwide.
We are gathering insights into the plans of international students to enable the UK’s world class universities to better formulate their responses to the crisis, starting with key markets in China, India and Pakistan with more to come.
While topflight sport is shutdown the British Council’s partnership with the Premier League is continuing to support a worldwide network of coaches, educators and young players and fans. #PremierSkillsFC is a new fictional football club that is bringing people together with lockdown-friendly games and podcasts – how many 'keepy-uppys' can you do?
Many of these innovations are with us to stay. We will restore our face to face work as it is safe to do so, already exams are restarting in the Czech Republic and Switzerland and our school in Madrid will be reopening very shortly. We will also continue to expand and develop our digital operations as these have so much potential to amplify our reach and impact. For example, in India by working digitally our training festivals managers who would normally work with 60 people face to face have been able to reach 3,000 people in 14 countries.
We have been affected like so many others across the 110 countries in which we work. This has meant profound changes for our staff, from those first to experience lockdown in China and those first to experience re-openings in East Asia to those now working from their kitchen tables in the UK and Italy.
Colleagues of all grades and nationalities have shown terrific resilience, imagination, passion and kindness.
So far we have withdrawn 390 staff and dependants from operations all over the world. We are also working closely with the FCO and others, for example our team in Kazakhstan is supporting the drawdown of British Embassy staff and dependants from Bishkek in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.
This also affects us as an organisation financially, with over 90 per cent of our English teaching and examinations operations closed our income has drastically reduced. In response to what is a severe and acute shock in both demand and supply we are taking decisive measures to reduce our spending to mitigate the impact on our work. This has included furloughing some of our staff in the UK and EU. We are immensely grateful to the FCO and colleagues across the Government as they help us address these issues.
We want to be part of securing the UK’s future success. We deliver an unmatched soft power impact with a far smaller proportion of our income in direct public funding than comparators from Germany, France or the US because of the success of these parts of the business. The need for our work is higher than ever and once this crisis is past we expect the business to be sustainable.
We connect the best of the UK with the world and the best of the world with the UK. These connections lead to an understanding of each other's strengths and of the challenges and values that we share. This builds trust between people in the UK and other nations which endures even when official relations may be strained. The trust we have built over decades is a key national capability that should boost our place in the world and Britain’s future prosperous relationships.
Understanding the way the world is changing in response to COVID-19 and strategically deploying the UK’s soft power assets will help Britain to bounce back from this crisis and build a stronger place in the world. The British Council creates and shares useful new knowledge to support our mission through using our network presence, convening power and relationships to bring back insight to the UK sectors and policymakers.
COVID-19 is catalysing change. Global macro trends are being accelerated, slowed, or disrupted, whether it’s the geostrategic rivalries threatening to undermine the post war International Order; the technological and cultural changes driving transformations in the behaviour of states, businesses and communities; or shifts in the relationship between citizen and state.
No-one knows how these challenges will play out.
But we can consider the implications and frame the questions for discussion: What are the soft power implications of countries’ responses to the crisis, to their perceived competence, or assistance to others? What are the implications for the UK’s soft power and comparative advantages in culture and education? Will this crisis prove the need for strengthening the conditions for cooperation and multilateral structures, or drive people towards mutual blame and distrust?
COVID-19 has affected us all profoundly. One of the things we are all learning about the pandemic and its consequences is that we're in this for the long haul. Our present is volatile and uncertain and at least some aspects of the future will be radically different to what we once knew as ‘normal’. While present challenges rightly come first it's important to gather the insights and the analysis to get ahead of that future.
The British Council has a key part to play in making sense of this new world and we will reimagine ourselves as an organisation to meet this challenge. The recovery from this crisis will depend on building connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and other countries. This has been the British Council’s mission for the past 86 years and continues to drive all we do as an organisation.
Dan Shah, Director Research and Policy Insight, British Council