Independent Politics

Coronavirus: British Council future in jeopardy due to severe impact of pandemic on finances, major union warns

A major union has warned the British Council’s future is in jeopardy without emergency government funding, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to have a severe impact on the organisation’s financial stability.

Founded in 1934, the council is one of the oldest cultural relations bodies in the world and is considered vital to the Foreign Office’s “soft power” overseas – promoting the UK through arts, culture and education abroad.

Employing more than 1,000 members of staff, the public body, which is also a registered charity and sponsored by the Foreign Office, operates in more than 100 countries and had an income exceeding £1.25bn in the last financial year.


But the outbreak of Covid-19 and various government-imposed lockdowns across the world has forced the body to close the vast majority of its English language schools – a major source of funding – leading to warnings of mass redundancies in the near future.

Despite a recent £26m injection from the Foreign Office, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, which represents members at the organisation, told The Independent that the British Council’s funding gap “still remains at £40m per month, which will last for at least four months” until operations re-open.

“If no additional funding is provided by the end of May, British Council have informed PCS that they will struggle to pay wages in June – they will simply not have enough funding to continue,” a spokesperson for PCS said.

In a letter sent to the SNP MP Chris Stephens, who chairs the parliamentary group of the PCS union, the Foreign Office minister Nigel Adams acknowledged the financial hardship faced by the organisation due to the coronavirus restrictions.

“The impact of Covid-19 on the British Council’s operations and funding is considerable, with the large majority of its English teaching and examinations centres worldwide currently closed,” Mr Adams said.

But the minister insisted the Foreign Office “remains committed to the British Council, who are a key driver of our soft power overseas”, highlighting the additional £26m in funding provided in April for the 2019-20 financial year. Half of the organisation’s 2020-21 Grant-in-Aid funding was also provided upfront last month to “further alleviate pressures”, he added.

Mr Adams said: “My officials will continue to work closely with the British Council in the coming days and weeks to address the impact of Covid-19 on their operations, and to ensure that the organisation is well place to continue to deliver its crucial work in a changing world.”

A spokesperson for the British Council added: “Covid-19 has had a significant impact on our finances. We are in constructive talks with the UK government to identify a solution. As the world recovers from the pandemic, making sure the UK is connected, understood and trusted will only be more important. We want to be there doing our part.”

According to an early day motion submitted in Parliament and signed by 35 MPs last month, the registered charity has had to close 203 out of its 221 schools across the globe and is aware the closures have “had a devastating impact on the financial reserves of the council”.


In a letter submitted to the Foreign Office on Monday, the University Council of Modern Languages, an organisation that considers itself one of the British Council’s “closest allies”, also urged the government to act urgently and ensure the survival of the organisation, considered “vital” to the government.

“Now is the time to look at an organisation such as the British Council for ways forward through the global challenges to international mobility and cultural relations that have been thrown up most recently by the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit,” the letter said.

It added: “We are facing an unprecedented global shutdown. Under these circumstances, we believe that the government must take action now to prevent the shutdown of one of the institutions that can offer us a route out of the impasse, and which continues to shape the next generation of global leaders and educators with cultural sensitivity, empathy, and insight to navigate our interconnected world.”

Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the PCS union, said: “It cannot be right that one of our most treasured and important institutions which helps put the UK on the map internationally is under threat. British Council staff work incredibly hard to deliver classes and promote wider knowledge of the English language in over 50 countries.

“The government has already put money aside to protect workers and businesses suffering during the corona pandemic. Now it must do the same for the British Council and all its staff.”

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