When the British Council was established in 1934 by Royal charter to promote the country’s cultural and educational interests around the world, Europe was facing the specter of totalitarianism. Created to establish a dialogue between nations was a part of a greater world vision for the United Kingdom and objective to consolidate democracy through art, science, and language.
Originally known as the British Committee for Relations with Other Countries, the British Council forged ahead with its founding mission to share knowledge among peoples, to understand different philosophies and ways of life. One of the regions where the UK Foreign Office wanted to strengthen ties in the Spanish-speaking world was Latin America, and Bogotá, known as the “Athens of South America” was chosen as the first city in all the Americas to have a British Council. The year was 1939.
For Tom Miscioscia, director of British Council Colombia, the 80 year anniversary is cause for celebration and announces a new App for users to follow an educational and cultural timeline of a charity that began as a small office in the center of Bogotá.
“The idea has always been to work multi-laterally, independent of the British Government, but dependent globally on grants from the Foreign Office. As we are part of the UK’s overseas priorities, the spirit of mutuality is very much at the heart of what we do […] this allows to talk about cultural exchanges, people to people connections, without it being about politics,” says Miscioscia.
The staying power of British Council in countries where there is no UK diplomatic representation is also particularly relevant, claims the director, as “our libraries have been the window on the world for many citizens in many countries that have been closed off to the world,” remarks Miscioscia. In terms of Colombia, British Council now has the largest operation in all the Americas with 100 teachers working out of five centers, when the operation began with five English teachers. “We’ve built up a sense of trust and upon the successes of the past,” claims Miscioscia, adding that 65,000 Colombians pass through their Exam Center every year in order to improve upon language proficiency. “Eighty years counts for something.”
Teaching large cross-sections of the Colombian working population to improve their language skills, including government employees, flight crews and air traffic controllers, Miscioscia views education and cultural exchange as key to supporting broader developmental issues in the country. “Even though we are at the heart of the debate of making Colombia more bilingual, we also work in a leadership capacity in the public education sector, helping to train school principals to become leaders […] ensuring that they are not just head teachers, but empower their students.”
When British Council opened in Bogotá, despite its small population of 325,000 inhabitants, the Colombian capital was a much-admired city among expats for its pro-business community, a growing cultural scene and enjoying diplomatic ties with the U.K since 1823 when the British Legion fought alongside Liberator Simón Bolívar. Today, the UK’s direct foreign investments in Colombia include the oil and gas sector, renewable energies, banking and insurance, aviation, pharmaceuticals, sustainable agriculture, to name a few. While the British Council is synonymous with teaching and providing scholarships to Great Britain for postgraduate students, it is an educational institute that fosters core values around human rights, from gender inequality to racial discrimination. “Every society has its challenges, and we increasingly see our role as supporting peace and prosperity development in communities, rural or inner city, as much as we can in order for these to get a better education, and more opportunities,” says Miscioscia. “It’s about sharing, not imposing.”
While during the 1960s and 70s, the mission of British Council was to educate affluent Bogotanos in order for them to study in universities in England, and nurture the Colombian participation in multi-national companies, the role has shifted over the decades to cultural promotion, societal development and providing “those who don’t have the same educational opportunities with new pathways,” claims Miscioscia, referencing an ongoing initiative with the Ministry of Education to train tour guides in post-conflict territories in English, in order to develop birdwatching as a sustainable income source. “We decided to use our UK experience to build a diploma in eco-tourism.”
Colombia’s post-conflict presents new sets of challenges and hopes for the country’s education sector, and after 80 years in the country, British Council is working at a grassroots level with vulnerable communities to help them implement good governance and teach civic leaders negotiation skills.
Building on the narrative many young people in Colombia already have regarding the UK, especially through music and films, British Council Colombia conducted a survey with 4,000 youngsters to better understand what are their dreams, hopes and aspirations. Conducted with the Universidad del Rosario, the Next Generation research paper unveiled interesting findings of Colombia’s youth, from distrust in political elites to the peace process signed with FARC, security, and future job prospects. “Young people in urban settings and those from rural areas have very different opportunities to access high-quality education, training skills, jobs, employment,” says Misciosa. “This is the biggest challenge this country has: educating its youth.”
As Colombia competes in a global market place, empowering youngsters to face the skill sets of tomorrow, British Council is working to broadening the country’s education base, which over 80 years has witnessed a transformation in demographics, innovation, and technology. “Our story is one of helping individuals, institutions, and policymakers, to take the next step in education,” says Miscioscia.