30 June 2021

Two thousand job cuts proposed at the British Council

After its income was hit by the pandemic, the British Council has notified us that it intends to begin formal redundancy consultation. This could lead to around 2000 job cuts across the organisation, in addition to cuts overseas.

Background

The British Council was founded in 1934 to improve cultural relations and improve social mobility, it is viewed internationally as fundamental in the teaching of the English language worldwide.

Its parent department is the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) with the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, at the helm.

Unlike most other public bodies, the British Council usually generates 85% of its income, mainly through teaching and examinations. When the pandemic hit, many of its global operations were closed, and the British Council found itself in dire financial straits.

PCS worked with external stakeholders, including University Language Associations, and garnered cross party support from MPs when the Save the British Council | 38 Degrees campaign was launched. Through e-action supported by thousands of PCS members, the FCDO eventually agreed to loan the British Council additional money.  The loans, which were delivered on a piecemeal basis, came with conditions on ‘structural reform’.

15 – 20% cuts announced

As predicted by PCS in 2020, after the British Council was initially ‘saved’ from closure, the real fight would be to preserve its independence from the FCDO, as an arm’s length organisation, and to resist huge cuts that the Foreign Secretary would demand as a condition of the loan.

The British Council is now in debt to the FCDO, with undisclosed rates of interest and repayment terms. The income generated from teaching and examinations is still not back to pre-pandemic times.  Part of this income is used to enhance the grant funded activity. The drop in income has left the British Council £10 million short of money needed to sustain its grant funded work. This has great impact on current and future activity in this area.

The British Council announced to staff last week that they would need to cut 15 – 20% from the organisation, including jobs and estates, over the next two years.   On 29 June they announced that formal consultation would begin with the union from next week on two specific areas, English Teaching, and Marketing. These are the first areas to face the axe.

Pay and jobs under threat

In 2020 the British Council was the only Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB) that did not pay its staff any kind of pay increase or pay award (bonus).

Despite multiple letters and attempts at dialogue, the Foreign Secretary has refused to even correspond with PCS about this issue.

There were some implications made that staff should “just be happy you have a job” and that job retention out trumped pay increases. With the latest announcement it is clear that funding for the British Council is key, as both pay and jobs are under attack.

Importance of soft power

Boris Johnson talks about global Britain and the importance of soft power. The cuts to the British Council undermine this. MPs have raised questions in parliament in support of the British Council. Stephen Kinnock MP tweeted “British Council delivers tremendous value for money for the British taxpayer as most of its ground-breaking work in cultural relations, scientific co-operation, education and English language teaching is commercially financed. Government forcing closures= definition of false economy.  It is becoming increasingly clear that ‘Global Britain’ is nothing more than an empty slogan. How can we be a truly Global Britain without a truly global @British Council?”

Piecemeal approach and inequalities

PCS has expressed its concerns that the British Council’s piecemeal approach to consultation is severely problematic. It does not allow us to see the bigger picture of the organisation’s future strategic plans or provide detail plans of how this will be achieved.  By focusing on individual countries or business areas in isolation, it removes opportunities for staff who want to stay in the organisation. They have transferable skills and could work in other parts of the organisation, but they could be made redundant unnecessarily due to the lack of a joined-up approach and the timeframe.

Worryingly, with the proposal to use performance markings as selection criteria, those employees who were furloughed in 2020 will be put at a disadvantage as they were automatically given a ‘box 3’ (acceptable level) rating.

Next steps

Members' meetings have been held to consult on the union’s actions. At that point it was clear that there was a problem with the approach and transparency regarding information released to staff, which we are pursuing with the employer.

PCS is meeting with external organisations and establishing a campaigns committee to plan our response to the attacks on the British Council. Plans are underway to lobby politicians and set up a petition.

Further updates will be provided next week. In the meantime if you are an employee at the British Council, or you just want to show your support, you can get involved with our campaign by contacting helenf@pcs.org.uk  If you aren’t a union member then please join online today.