A new role for the British Council?

A fresh face promises a different perspective, says David Walker
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The Independent Online
Handbagged hard by Lady Thatcher, the British Council has been striving in recent years to reinvent itself as a hardnosed purveyor of paid-for English language teaching. It still sends ballets to Berlin and Shakespeare to Singapore - but there are fewer of those rather vague exchanges that once gave Malcolm Bradbury a free trip to Bucharest, allowing him to lampoon the Council mercilessly in several comic novels.

That was under the Tories. How will the pounds 430m-a-year British Council fare under Labour, now that Overseas Development (one of its principal patrons in Whitehall) has become a fully-fledged department under feisty Clare Short? The British Council is not going to get any more, that's for sure, but will ministers look on it more kindly?

One straw in the wind is the recent appointment of a new director-general, someone entirely fresh to the world of cultural exchange and a physical scientist by background. Although the Council has long had chemists and geologists on its books its public reputation, under the tutelage of the Foreign Office, has always been tilted towards the classical and humanities end of the academic spectrum.

The new man is David Drewry, director of science and technology with the Natural Environment Research Council and an expert on polar ice caps. What that points to is something Labour is keen on: Britain acquiring much more of a reputation abroad for environmental protection. Drewry does not take over till the New Year and so is cagey about his plans, but he does say "without reducing the role of the British Council in English language teaching - which is vital to UK plc, I will have a different perspective."

Drewry takes over in the pounds 90,000-a-year post from Sir John Hanson, who is becoming warden of Green College, Oxford.

NERC is the research co-ordinating body that runs the Geological Survey and Institute of Hydrology, and Drewry's role there was to link the various branches of science involved in environmental research. He himself is a Cambridge-formed geophysicist who, before joining NERC, was head of the British Antarctic Survey and before that the Scott Polar Research Institute. (That experience taught him a lot, he says, about international diplomacy. In Antarctica some 25 different countries manage to co-operate fairly well.)

He maintains an interest in his field as a visiting professor at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, which is where he did his undergraduate degree. He comes from Grimsby, which means he will be somewhat more representative of Britain at large than the Foreign Office types who traditionally staffed the upper reaches of the British Council.

How about, I asked him, a change of name? "British Council" is not very explicit about what the organisation does. The British Tourist Authority, admittedly controversially, has recently been thinking of repackaging itself to get more in line with what it is visitors to Britain come for.

"When I was director of the British Antarctic Survey, `British' in the title was never a problem. Market research shows that organisations that change their name often lose out in terms of public recognition."

There is no question that the British Council has become a more professional outfit in recent years. It has moved into new technology to keep up with developments in foreign language teaching and now produces a number of interactive "new media" products, as well as printed word material for what is nowadays the huge Teaching English as a Foreign Language industry - which nets the Council some pounds 100m a year.

"In appointing me, the British Council's board [the Tories ensured it is nowadays quite strongly representative of British business] recognised that science and technology is part of the way the Council is evolving."

If the English language is a great British asset, David Drewry wants the British Council to exploit others, especially expertise in environmental protection.

"On the agenda of the new government are questions of sustainable development. The British Council has a part to play in bringing British know-how to developing countries, building up bodies of knowledge there, while bringing people over to the UK and placing experts overseas.

"If individuals from developing nations become acquainted with what Britain has to offer, they go back influenced by the equipment they have used or the people they trained under.

"There is a net commercial benefit to the UK in this. We have products relating, say, to waste management and pollution control. By building a bridge of knowledge the British Council can assist the industrial and commercial side.

"It's true that my group of contacts in Whitehall tend to be with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions rather than with the Foreign Office. I intend to explore these for the benefit of the British Council"n