Foreign Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence from the British Council


What role can the British Council play responding to the Arab Spring?

Crisis Team response in Egypt and Tunisia

Programme response:


Education and Skills

Youth and Networks


What Role can the British Council Play Responding to the Arab Spring?

1. The British Council has been working and making a difference in MENA since the 1930s; our existing networks of influencers, including 570 young leaders in our Global Changemakers programme (see paragraph 26), ensure that the legacy of trust we have built during this time will be crucial for the UK’s engagement with the region in the future.

2. Our work is highly valued by new and existing governments in the region. Our immediate priorities are Egypt and Tunisia, where the new authorities have sought our help in assisting them with the social, educational (including English language teaching) and economic reform they wish to undertake. In Tunisia, we will shortly be signing a high level agreement with the Ministry of Employment to become adviser to government on English language policy and strategy (see paragraph 16). We will engage in similar efforts to work with the new administration in Libya when it is safe to do so and endeavour to resume our work in Tripoli and elsewhere when the situation is considered secure for both our staff and customers.

3. British Council Egypt is our oldest overseas operation where we have been present since 1938. We have been in Tunisia for nearly half a century, opening our Tunis office in 1962. Our operation in the Middle East and North Africa region remains a priority for the organisation, where last year we engaged face to face with 0.8 million people and reached another 6.5 million people through our exhibitions, media and online audience.

4. Today, we operate in all 17 countries in the region, working, as we have for decades, in English language, education and skills, youth leadership and networks—addressing the underlying issues currently exposed in the Arab Spring. We are responding to governance developments and rising public expectations in Middle East and North Africa with a series of new projects, many funded by the Arab Partnership initiative, which build on our existing work and significantly increase our impact and enhance UK interests in the region.

Crisis Team Response to the Arab Spring

5. The most pressing response to the protests in Egypt and Tunisia was to guarantee the safety of our staff and their dependents as the security situation deteriorated in both countries. We balanced this decision with our commitment to maintain a presence on the ground around the world in good times and bad. In both countries a senior team remained in country throughout and ensured we were quick to get our staff back and resume our work when the situation improved.


6. In response to the instability of the protest period in Egypt we organised a phased evacuation of 90 UK appointed staff and their families, with a senior team remaining in Cairo. This helped to ensure the safety of staff, but also enabled us to ensure the continued operation of key programmes. On 11 February, the same day as Hosni Mubarak stood down as President, our exams team delivered IELTS tests to 200 Egyptian students, with a further 200 the following day.


7. Following the 14 January revolution in Tunisia we evacuated all non-essential UK staff. A senior team remained in country. Within a week of the overthrow of President Ben Ali our office in Tunis reopened and activity resumed.

Programme Response

8. Like our work across the MENA network, we have focussed our efforts on areas where we know there is endless demand: in English language, education and skills, youth leadership and arts—addressing, as we have done for some time, many of the underlying issues presently highlighted in the Arab Spring. Opportunities are emerging for us from the Arab Spring to increase engagement and the emerging leadership and influencers throughout the region are asking us to do more.


9. The demand for English language skills across the region is already vast; over 54 million people in the Middle East and North Africa are estimated to be studying English in the formal education sector. Coupled with this, the region’s population is getting bigger and younger: 70% of the population is under 35, but within this segment nearly 40% are unemployed. One of the issues highlighted in UNESCO’s Arab Human Development report is the failure of educational structures in the region to equip young people with the skills they need to find employment to ensure economic development and social stability.

10. Our large-scale English for the Future programme is already established across the region, providing support to developing national policies for English language teaching and support to teacher training, reaching 5.7 million people last year and on target to grow to 8 million this year. In Tunisia this has involved assisting the Ministry of Education to prepare a plan for the complete reform of the English language curriculum focussed specifically on language skills for employability. (See annex, para 1.1.)

11. With 20 Teaching Centres across 18 cities in 13 countries in the region, last year we taught more than 100,000 students directly. Our teaching centre in Tunisia teaches around 2,500 learners every year and, despite recent uncertainties, demand remains high amongst young people and the corporate sector. (See annex, para 1.2.)

12. Along with our partners, we delivered more than 125,000 IELTS English exams in the region last year. Demand is high because these qualifications are prized.

13. Responding to the events of the Arab Spring we are launching new projects to extend the impact of our work. A number of these initiatives have been funded by the Arab Partnership Initiative and are designed to focus on skills development, ELT and youth engagement work that will help young people in the region take advantage of the new opportunities emerging in their countries.

New projects include:

English for Employability for Vocational Education—Tunisia

14. The British Council has received investment for a new English language project in Tunisia via the Arab Partnership Initiative. Public debate in Tunisia is focussing in on youth and employment as the key areas to be addressed by the post-revolutionary government. The investment will enable the British Council to address an area of immediate concern: the teaching of English in vocational centres. (See annex, para 1.3.)

Ministry of Employment and Vocational Training

15. In Tunisia our work with government has given us a unique insight into the issues relating to the teaching and learning of English to prepare young people for the world of work. In addition to the advisory role we are due to begin with the Tunisian government mentioned earlier in the report, we expect to sign a contract with the Ministry of Employment at the end of September to assist in developing the English language skills of 10,000 unemployed graduates over the next three years.

Improving Language Skills Training for Young People in Egypt

16. The British Council has also received investment under the Arab Partnership Initiative to set up a centre for English education reform which will be the driver of reform and quality English language training in Egypt. The new project in Egypt is making a significant contribution to the Government of Egypt’s Education Development Fund objective of training and developing 60,000 English language teachers in Egypt in the next four to six years.

17. With English language training at all levels of the education system underperforming due to the quality decreasing as the quantity of provision has increased, the Egyptian Educational Development Fund have approached the British Council for help. The Centre for English Education Reform which the British Council has proposed to address this issue, will primarily deliver master trainer training programmes focussed on the primary, secondary and tertiary/vocational levels. (See annex, para 1.4.)

Kids Read—A British Council and HSBC partnership

18. In March, the British Council and HSBC signed a partnership agreement to launch Kids Read—a new programme aimed at English language and literacy. Kids Read is sponsored exclusively by HSBC and aims to encourage reading for pleasure in English both inside and outside the classroom in 11 countries across the region, including Egypt. Our total reach will be approximately 25,000 students and 300 teachers in 78 schools as well as 250 HSBC volunteers. (See annex, para 1.5.)

Education & Skills

19. Reform of education at all levels is essential to provide young people across the region with the skills that they need to find and create work and to support economic, social and political development.

20. Higher education in particular has a major role to play in supporting national reform agendas and where international links have major potential for engagement. We are expanding such links, for curriculum reform, quality assurance, institutional management and research collaboration, as well as helping student-to-student links. We are already working to support reform and quality assurance in eight countries across the region and we are expanding our work in this area across North Africa this financial year.

21. Vocational Education, providing work skills for young people directly linked to local industry and business needs is essential to helping economic growth and increased employment. Our Skills for Employability programme is active and expanding across the region, supporting policy development, curricular reform, quality assurance, business and industry links and institutional links with UK colleges. This is a priority policy area for all new or reforming administrations across the region.

22. School level reform is also critical. Current governments have been wary of international links because of worries about external influence on young people. This may change with new, more outward-looking, reformist governments. We currently have links with ministries and schools through our Connecting Classrooms programme which links over 70,000 students in 700 schools in the region with schools in the UK.

23. We can expand on this to develop new school programmes with new reforming governments.

New work includes:

Widening Opportunities for Youth Employability—Tunisia and Egypt

24. Building on Skills for Employability, we have secured investment from the Arab Partnership Initiative to expand vocational training for young people in Egypt and Tunisia. The project aims to train 10,000 young people directly, engage with a further 60,000 via social media, and 12 million through a skills radio programme over the course of two years. (See annex, para 2.1.)

Youth & Networks

Young people launched the leaderless uprisings of the Arab Spring and will play a defining role in the formation of new governments and in holding them to account.

25. We have an established network of young people across the region, connected to the UK and globally through our Global Changemakers programme for exceptional 18–25 year old social activists and social entrepreneurs. Across the Middle East, the network directly engages some 570 members who, in turn, reach thousands more through their projects. These networks are real assets: they straddle the entire region and they include rising stars that are proven influencers amongst their generation, acting as “multipliers” for civil society engagement. Members were directly involved in the revolution in Tunisia and in the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt. In the post-revolutionary period the British Council is still trusted and wanted. Our value to these young leaders was confirmed recently when we supported a group of young activists involved in the programme to visit London and to meet with the Deputy Prime Minister to give their perspective on current events and prospects for the future. This further solidified the value they attach to our “convening power”, our non-prescriptive approach (compared to other western organisations) and the role we play in facilitating dialogue and social action.

26. The role that women have played in demonstrations across the region has been striking, in dramatic contrast to their normal exclusion from opportunity and the patriarchal nature of many of the societies and autocratic regimes. Support to women’s empowerment will make a major contribution to overall reform. Springboard, the British Council’s global women’s empowerment programme, adapted with local partners to Middle Eastern culture, has been active in the Gulf for the last two years providing personal development opportunities and links to UK networks for over 8,500 women over the last two years. We expect to expand this programme to North Africa and the Levant and use the networks of women established to develop further activity. We are also working with lawyers, academics, young leaders and organisations in the region to increase and secure women’s rights particularly in those countries where constitutional reform is underway.

27. The British Council’s long established networks, capability on the ground and global experience of delivering programmes in these areas makes us a valuable delivery partner for programmes that support media, justice and civil society reform.

New work includes:

Next Generation Research—Egypt

28. The British Council has demonstrated an expertise in engaging with youth to produce new research on the attitudes, behaviours and knowledge of the “next generation” with its seminal reports on Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh. In response to the Arab Spring, we will bring this model of research to further understand youth issues in Egypt and the wider region. (See annex, para 3.1.)

Young Arab Research Network in Morocco (with participants from Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan)

29. Noticing the very low presence of young policy analysts able to give youth focussed analysis of current social and political issues, in March the British Council convened a meeting of the Young Arab Research Network, a regional sub-group of the Global Changemakers programme, with representatives from Chatham House. The objective was to bring youth-led research to the forefront of debate across the countries of North Africa. The product of this meeting is a programme in partnership with Chatham House which will support 150 young researchers/journalists/political activists 18–30 years from Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan. (See annex, para 3.2.)

International Inspiration—Egypt and the Gulf

30. International Inspiration is the international legacy project for London 2012. It aims to enrich the lives of 12 million young people in 20 countries, through high quality and inclusive sport. We are working with a range of partners to bring this project to Egypt, where it will make a strong contribution to wider efforts to engage young people in public life. Building on a strong base in Egypt, we will explore opportunities to share some of the learning with other countries in the region, including in the Gulf.


31. The arts in North Africa and the Middle East have a high profile in this tide of change. During the uprising in Egypt, independent artists and art organisations were actively present in Tahrir Square. Where free speech has been limited across the region, it has often been independent artists who have kept the voice of youth and civil society alive. The arts now have a crucial role to play in helping societies make their voice heard and rebuild their sense of identity.

32. A comment frequently heard in Cairo since the fall of the Mubarak regime is “Now everyone is an artist.” There is a strong movement to reclaim the streets in Egypt with all forms of personal and political expression including cartoons, spontaneous song, music and dance. As a result, arts organisations are overwhelmed with activity.

33. Using our extensive networks and on the ground cultural relations expertise, the British Council is making every effort to support new voices from across the region. The culture of creativity, invention and innovation amongst young people needs to be reinvigorated after decades of neglect. Engagement with ideas and the wider world through the arts will help to extend limited world views and promote dialogue in civil society. The British Council’s arts programme across MENA focuses on supporting artists and independent institutions through opportunities for collaboration with the UK and training and award schemes. It provides support to developing a growing cadre of professionals in arts management.

New work includes:

Democracy Loading

34. The Democracy…Loading project explores the aspirations of young people in Tunisia following the Arab Spring. The film makers are all young Tunisians who were active protestors during the revolution and have been mentored by UK documentary counterparts. The films also inspire discussion and debate within Tunisia, supporting the development of freedom of speech in a country where it has almost been impossible for more than two decades. (See annex, para 4.1.)

Art and Social Change Research

35. Responding to the flourishing of the region’s artistic community brought on by the Arab Spring, the British Council is commissioning research to investigate the relationship between the arts and recent political activity in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. The research will examine the cultural and political changes that are occurring within and across the four case study countries, as documented, expressed and communicated through art in different forms.

Macbeth: Leila and Ben—A Bloody History

36. Relationships established through the British Council project New Work New Audiences have led to the commissioning of a production by Tunisian director Lotfi Achour which will have its world premier at the World Shakespeare Festival in London in July 2012. The British Council will support the production and the performances in the UK. Macbeth: Leila and Ben—a Bloody History is likely to be a sensation in Tunisia where theatre has a very strong tradition and a very loyal and active young audience.


The British Council continues to deepen the relationship it has had with the people of the Middle East and North Africa for more than 70 years: giving them the tools to become more active and informed members and leaders of their own societies through English Language training, vocational education and cultural exchange. It is a response that will bring enormous future benefits to both countries and economies and support UK security and prosperity now and in the future.

16 September 2011




1.1 Implementation of reform can begin very quickly once current upheaval in the Ministry of Education has calmed. The plan may also serve as a model for other countries in the region.

Crucially, the programme gives direct support to learners of English, through a range of means including online language training and TV, radio and newspaper learning resources. In 2010 over 2.25 million learners accessed this material including around 35,000 a day through our social media provision; the appetite for English—and as a result, British culture—is enormous. The British Council’s English language Facebook page has 300,000 subscribers with over 100,000 subscribers from Egypt alone.

1.2 The majority of our English language learners in the region, however, do not have access to quality learning opportunities. Many of the region’s estimated 300,000 teachers are insufficiently trained, do not have access to good teaching materials and many themselves have poor English language skills so a real opportunity exists to expand our work in this area.

1.3 Working with our partner, the Tunisian Agency for Vocational Training, we have already completed stage one: 44 teachers from vocational centres followed a course led by British Council trainers, and shared their views on what improvements were needed in the system for teaching English in vocational centres. A number of these teachers will go on to form a network of master teachers who will undertake further training for their peers and lead on later stages in the project.

1.4 A cadre of master trainers can then scale the learning more broadly to teachers across the country. The centre will also house a resource library with English language training materials from UK publishers, and support online training for teachers in geographically remote areas.

1.5 Six government primary schools in each country will receive approximately 50 authentic fiction books with accompanying lesson plans and activities. Three to four English language teachers in each school will receive training in storytelling and extensive reading with involvement from 18–20 HSBC volunteers in each country throughout the pilot.

Education & Skills

2.1 The Widening Opportunities for Youth Employability initiative will focus on three areas in each country: 1) entrepreneurship and work-based skills development for young people through national apprenticeship strategies, resources for small business development, training for young people and national enterprise award competitions; 2) raising awareness of the need and opportunities to address the gap in skills through social networking, radio and policy dialogue, and 3) building employer engagement in the skills agenda with partnerships between bodies in Egypt and Tunisia, and the UK Sector Skills Councils and the European Training Foundation.

Youth & Networks

3.1 Key elements of the Next Generation research approach include: exploring local, national and global themes in relation to youth; involving key national figures in the steering of the project; involving youth to make sense of the research to produce a narrative on key findings and the needs and expectations that categorise the “next generation”.

3.2 Chatham House and the British Council will co-host a conference during which the researchers will be able to present their policy papers and get exposure to a wider UK audience.


4.1 The package of documentary films inspired by the Tunisian revolution will be shown to UK cinema clubs, university groups and film festivals.

Prepared 19th July 2012