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Mat Wright.

October 2021

Rachel Launay, British Council Director Italy, says that this year’s Pontignano Conference has shown again that education and culture are key assets to support the UK’s international ambitions, in a decade where resilient relationships are crucial. 

Education and culture are key to build back better from the pandemic

The UK Government’s Integrated Review states that the UK will sustain its ‘people and cultural ties’ with Europe and look for opportunities for collaboration. It also recognises the UK’s educational and cultural sectors are key assets for promoting the UK as a positive nation, and for building long-term, resilient international relationships. These relationships matter: they enable trade and business opportunities and facilitate collaboration on global challenges.  

Whilst the UK’s new relationship with the EU is still being defined, the UK’s relationships across Europe run deep. The UK must sustainably fund its cultural and educational assets to enable UK sectors to build international connections and promote their work internationally. Only with sufficient funding can sectors build back better from the pandemic by taking advantage of the many opportunities that UK - European exchange can offer. 

The ongoing impacts of the pandemic and changes as the UK and EU redefine their relationship, mean that the UK’s cultural and educational sectors face more acute challenges than ever to engaging in the region. Although there have been increases in applicants from other parts of the world, in August 2021, UCAS reported a 56 per cent decline in applicants from EU countries accepted to study at UK universities. The UK’s creative sectors are also facing considerable challenges to showcase and exchange, including the need for digital skills development. 

One of the privileges of being a British Council Country Director is engaging with a diverse range of partners to tackle these challenges. In a single week, I work with senior government representatives, artists, researchers, youth activists, media, business leaders, parliamentarians, students, scientists, to name but a few. Our rich ecosystem of relationships - from grassroots groups to world leaders - is one of the core principles of why cultural relations makes impact: brokering new relationships and building long-term, trusted relationships for the mutual benefit of the UK and the countries we work with. Of course, I along with other British Council colleagues across Europe, can only do this with sustainable non ODA funding from UK Government.

It's clear to me that the value of these networks is nowhere more apparent than at the Pontignano Conference. Hosted by the British Embassy in Rome and in partnership with British Council Italy, Pontignano is a significant event in the UK-Italy calendar. It convenes leading thinkers across sectors to debate how the UK and Italy can work together to tackle global challenges. This year, UK Government representatives included Wendy Morton MP, FCDO Minister for Europe and Americas, and John Glen MP, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, as well as their Italian counterparts.


The focus was unsurprisingly on ‘building back better’ from the pandemic, or, as we were encouraged by opening speaker Margaret Heffernan, to ‘build forward better'. At the heart of debates were questions of resilience: how are people’s professional and personal lives being transformed by the pandemic? What risks do educational and cultural sectors face, and how can we innovate to support them? Throughout all these discussions, the importance of collaboration and creativity for building resilience in the face of continued uncertainty was clear.

Climate resilience was a significant theme, ahead of the UK hosting COP26 and assuming COP Presidency, in partnership with Italy, in November 2021. UK and Italian partners have collaborated closely, with British Council launching its Global Youth Letter (GYL) in Milan before the Italian Government’s Youth4Climate Summit. The GYL shares the views, experiences and aspirations of 8,000 young people across 23 countries, with a call for young people globally to add their voice. It was part of our global programme in the lead-up to COP26, The Climate Connection, which engaged young people in climate dialogues and action with stakeholders across our sectors through arts and culture, education and the English language. 

Rebuilding the attraction of UK higher education across Europe

Pontignano also convened senior university representatives to reimagine tertiary education for a post-pandemic world. The landscape of what students want is changing, with shifts towards digital and hybrid learning. There was agreement to collaborate as we shape the future of digital learning, to ensure that students’ learning experiences continue to be high quality. 

The 2021 refresh of the UK Government’s International Education Strategy emphasises the importance of maintaining momentum in Europe, as the UK enters its new trading relationship with the EU. Yet the UK’s higher education (HE) sector faces unprecedented challenges in the region. The considerable decline in applicants from EU countries is caused by student concerns about increased costs, new visa requirements and increasing complexity to apply and live in the UK. Our recent research also shows that whilst the quality of UK institutions is recognised by students in France, Germany, Greece and Poland, consideration of the UK as the priority English-speaking destination for EU students has decreased year-on-year. 

What can be done to support the UK’s higher education sector, not only in Italy but across Europe? Critical action is needed in communication, partnerships and innovation – but this action can only happen with sustained funding to create international opportunities.

Communicating with students is key to boosting confidence in the UK as a study destination. Through Study UK, delivered by the British Council in partnership with the UK Government’s GREAT Britain Campaign, we are providing students across Europe with opportunities to discover the UK’s world-class HE sector and understand any changes to their student status. Over 3,300 students registered to join the British Council’s Europe-wide, online university fair, ‘Study UK: The essentials’. Through this innovative platform, students could meet 53 universities from across the UK and join webinars to better understand changes to application processes and scholarship opportunities.  

Building long-term, trusted partnerships in-country is also key. It creates opportunities for the UK’s HE sector to identify new opportunities, and strengthens the UK’s reputation as an attractive and trusted nation to visit, study, work and trade with. Building on our strong educational partnerships, we are supporting the international engagement plan for the Turing Scheme across Europe and the wider world, helping facilitate key discussions with European partners to strengthen opportunities through the scheme. Our wider work continues to strengthen bilateral relationships: our strategic partnership with the Greek Ministry of Education and the British Embassy in Athens is enabling collaborations between Greek and UK universities to identify opportunities for joint and dual degrees, research and other learning opportunities. All of Greece’s universities and 30 UK universities have engaged so far. 

Finally, the UK HE sector must be supported to innovate in response to the changing needs and demands of international students. The UK’s HE sector is increasingly strategic in using transnational education (TNE) to strengthen its connections across Europe. According to our research, an increasing number of students in the EU are considering UK TNE options in their own country. Students want more flexibility on where and how they study, following the pandemic and the UK’s departure from the EU. There are considerable opportunities for the sector; in fact, the EU is the only region worldwide with consistent growth in UK TNE provision. We are continuing to help broker new relationships and promote the UK’s TNE offer with students, parents and educators across Europe. 

A well-resourced cultural sector is essential to build back better from the pandemic

The pandemic has shown that any view from governments or the public that culture is a ‘nice to have’ is outdated and not forward looking. Discussions at Pontignano emphasised that cultural products and services are significant businesses. The creative economy is growing rapidly in both Italy and the UK , bringing significant return on investment and supporting efforts to build back better from the pandemic. Moreover, culture has played a critical role in supporting people’s wellbeing during the pandemic, helping connect them to other people and ideas during unprecedented isolation. 

Like other industries, the creative sector must be supported to strengthen its resilience in an uncertain world. Partnerships are critical to this. Stakeholders at Pontignano agreed that building the sector’s digital literacy and skills, as well as sustaining face-to-face exchange, is key to supporting the sector to recover and innovate. In response to this need, British Council has recently launched its International Collaboration Fund, which encourages new international partnerships and innovative ways of collaborating between artists from across the UK, Europe and the wider world. 

Yet again, I find that the Pontignano Conference has shown education and culture as key assets to support the UK’s international ambitions in a decade where resilient relationships are crucial. These assets – and their internationalisation – must be sustainably funded, as we forge ahead in a decade where the only certainty is that uncertainty will remain for some time to come.