Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig


Seòmar agus comataidhean

Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee

Submission from the British Council Scotland

Call for views into the Scottish Government’s international work

Question Focus:
  • What should the priorities of the Scottish Government be in developing its external affairs work and overseas presence, including its international development policy?
  • What principles should inform the Scottish Government’s international engagement (e.g. economic, democratic, human rights, climate change or cultural / ‘soft power’ priorities)?

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We work with over 100 countries in the fields of arts and culture, English language and education. We are an executive non-departmental public body sponsored by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office and a charity registered in both Scotland and England.

Several areas of our work, approach and research have relevance to the scope of the current request, such as cultural relations and soft power. We offer the following views in relation to the key areas being considered: Namely about the principles that should inform the Scottish Government’s international engagement.

In summary, our position is that in developing its external affairs work, a focus on the benefits of cultural relations and soft power would be beneficial. Successful international cultural collaborations are key in building and investing in long term relationships to secure mutually beneficial outcomes. Particularly as the arts and education sectors develop out of the COVID19 Pandemic.

Our approach to international cultural relations

We define our approach to cultural relations as:

Using the cultural resources of the four nations of the UK to foster the sharing of knowledge and ideas between people working together for mutual benefit, leading to long-lasting relationships, trust, understanding and respect.

In our strategic priorities we acknowledge several external factors, including the impact of the COVID19 pandemic on the culture sector and a deep consideration of the challenges around climate change that is embedded in the framework of a lot of our work.

Devolution also features prominently amongst these considerations. Our UK Strategy directs our work toward making a significant contribution to the UK’s long-term international objectives by representing and serving all parts of the UK, as well as the particular interests of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Ultimately, our approach to cultural relations reflects, draws on and serves the diversity of the UK.

In the UK we develop and deliver major programmes that connect individuals (including children, young people, artists, scientists and social entrepreneurs) and institutions (including schools, universities, arts organisations, museums and galleries) with the wider world.

Strong examples within Scotland include the Connecting Classrooms through Global Learning programme, and Momentum international delegates to the Edinburgh Festivals.

The British Council in Scotland

British Council Scotland consists of a small team of staff based in Edinburgh who work to develop and grow Scotland's international connections and contribution across the arts, education and society sectors. Our programmes are tailored for Scotland’s devolved frameworks, Scotland’s international agendas and Scotland’s distinct assets and priorities. Collaboration is key to how we operate and we have strategic relationships with Universities Scotland, Education Scotland and Creative Scotland. We map our work to key national strategies and frameworks including Scotland's National Performance Framework.

In recent months we have delivered several projects as part of our work to keep Scotland’s arts and education sectors internationally connected throughout the pandemic. We know that continued restrictions on social gatherings and travel will affect face-to-face and mobility programmes and that the pandemic has changed the way that people – particularly young people – participate in cultural activities, learn new skills and interact with each other.


We are committed to showcasing the rich, diverse wealth of Scottish arts and cultural talent to the world, fostering partnerships and collaboration with international audiences, and enabling artistic exchange: We promote international opportunities to the Scottish sector being delivered throughout our global network and their partners, and those managed from Scotland.

We provide advice to the sector (through events and responding to enquiries), and Scottish arts & cultural organisations and professionals are well represented across British Council global programmes. Scottish organisations and artists have successfully secured funding through several British Council global open calls for example:

International Collaboration Fund:

In partnership with Creative Scotland, we delivered an open call to create opportunities for focused digital collaboration between Scottish artists and creative sector organisations, and global partners through the development of a digital collaboration fund. Artists and organisations based in Scotland applied for grants of up to £25,000 to work with international peers and develop innovative residency projects.

The funds aim is to boost financial support for artists and organisations to maintain vital international links during the pandemic and beyond. This attracted a positive response, and we are now supporting nine global partnerships connecting regions in Scotland with global partners. You can read associated stories here:


Momentum has been running for over 10 years and we have welcomed over 1000 participants to Scotland through this annual delegate programme taking place during the Edinburgh August Festivals. British Council and Creative Scotland are the core funders and together with Festivals Edinburgh, we each draw on our knowledge and expertise to host approx. 150 -170 international delegates and two specialist delegations for visual art and literature.

In 2019, Momentum welcomed 170 international delegates from 29 countries, and 94 per cent said they intended to follow up on connections and ideas developed during the programme. Momentum feeds into a range of British Council programmes, projects and seasons, and contributes to the work of Creative Scotland and Festivals Edinburgh, and creative thinking, careers and market opportunities for artists and cultural organisations. British Council’s role, in addition to funding, is to identify appropriate delegates, working with our global arts team, delegate management and hosting approx. a 3rd of country delegations.

COP26 The Climate Connection, Creative Commissions:

The British Council launched 17 Creative Commissions this year to explore climate change through art, science, education and digital technology. Awarded through a competitive open call the commissions have been developed by individuals and organisations in the UK with partners in 33 countries. Five projects are connecting Scotland with the world: some of which are being showcased this week during CoP26. 

In partnership with Creative Scotland, we have held two Scotland-specific open calls for the arts sector in 2019/2020, one with a focus on EU/Europe projects, the other with a focus on taking part in the UK Japan Season 2019/20. We have supported delegations from the music sectors of China, Canada and Vietnam to attend Celtic Connections in 2020 to make connections with their peers in Scottish music sector. We are also supporting the critically-acclaimed Scotland + Venice presentation by Alberta Whittle.

Edinburgh’s summer festivals constitute a powerful platform for international cultural relations. We optimise these opportunities through several global cultural partnership programmes, including the annual Momentum international delegate programme described above and the biannual Edinburgh International Culture Summit.


Scotland’s schools, universities, colleges, youth and third sector organisations are active participants in various British Council education initiatives. In addition to the education programmes such as Connecting Classrooms, the British Council manages and delivers several education programmes that have a strong Scotland focus and which receive grant funding from the Scottish Government.

Our understanding of Scotland’s distinct educational policies and our strong partner and stakeholder relationships allow us to identify opportunities that support Scotland’s international education ambitions. We work closely with education sector and programme colleagues in the UK, regional education leads and teams in priority countries for Scotland including India, Pakistan and China.

Higher Education portfolio and partnerships

As a leading member of the Connected Scotland partnership that involves: British Council, Scottish Government, Universities Scotland, Scotland’s Colleges, Scottish Funding Council, Scottish Development International and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, we have strengthened Scotland’s international profile for excellence in innovation and research and initiated a broad range of agency and university connections in; India, China, Hong Kong, Germany, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil.

Through the delivery of mobility and exchange programmes British Council Scotland supports international connections and partnerships for all of Scotland’s Higher Education Institutions, the majority of colleges and approximately a third of all schools.

Schools programmes and youth development initiatives

In Schools, British Council Scotland supports the international ambitions of Education Scotland, Scottish Government and our global network though system reform work in a range of ODA countries. We support the international promotion of Scottish strengths in schools education through platforms such as Education World Forum.

Scotland- Pakistan Scholarship Scheme:

The team in Edinburgh has worked closely with colleagues in Pakistan on coordination of the scholarships, with alumni actively involved in some programmes including GlobeScotters conversations. (As noted in our Soft Power research, this scheme is an important example of the unique offer from the Scottish Government that combines a human rights approach and the SDGs into an innovative international development strategy).

CoP26 Live at the CoP MOOCs with Future Learn:

This year we have worked with the University of Edinburgh to develop a global massive open online course (MOOC) that draws on Scotland’s approach to learning for sustainability. We are supporting the UK’s ambition to make COP26 the most inclusive ever, connecting young people in Glasgow to our global schools network, providing access to resources on the environment and community action.

Going Global, partnerships:

These partnerships aim to build more inclusive, internationally connected higher education and TVET stems – supporting collaboration between universities, colleges education policy makers, civil society organisations and industry partners in the UK and around the world. There is currently an open call for funding aimed at Higher Education institutions in Scotland and the UK to connect with key institutions in regions including India, Vietnam (to Oct 25th) and Bangladesh.

In addition to supporting Scotland’s dynamic international engagement in the arts and education sectors, we are also committed to helping ensure that children and young people in Scotland have the opportunity to develop a global outlook and international mindset. Working to achieve this goal was a significant driver of our involvement with Scotland’s Year of Young People back in 2018. This year, in partnership with Young Scot and now also with the Scottish Government, we have re-energised a digital engagement campaign entitled GlobeScotters, and through this, we hare obtaining direct insight into the international aspirations and views of young people, and the barriers they perceive in this regard. We will continue our work in this area to ensure that young people in Scotland can be internationally engaged and that they become informed about international experiences.

Scotland is also the HQ for British Council’s Future News Worldwide programme. A partnership programme between the British Council and leading media organisations. Advisory Board members include Reuters, BBC World service, NewQuest Scotland, STV, Facebook, and UK Schools of Journalism. It developed from a Commonwealth newsroom initiative for young people supported by British Council in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, 2013. The programme aim is to support young people to develop a range of journalism skills and to establish the UK as a global leader in the nurturing of young journalists and media figures. Each year it brings together 100 of the world's most promising student journalists to attend an intensive media training programme.

Scottish Government International Offices and Innovation and Investment Hubs

We work closely with Scottish Governments International Hubs in each location.

In places where the Scottish Government does not have an International Office or Hub, our teams are able and ready to contribute to Scotland’s interests in the country through their insight, deep local knowledge and access to networks.

Cultural relations and soft power

We are working in a global context of exponential change in all spheres of life – technology, economics, demographics, society and climate – and a transitional situation the UK, as we manage the effects of the COVID19 pandemic. We expect wider global trends to continue as the UK repositions itself in the international arena and, at the same time, devolved systems of government follow diverse approaches and priorities across the nations, cities and city regions of the UK.

By fostering strong cultural relations between the UK and countries around the world, the British Council strengthens the UK’s international relationships and soft power.

We understand soft power as:

a nation’s ability to achieve its international objectives by gaining a more sympathetic appreciation of its policies and actions not through military might or other forms of coercion but through attraction and co-option. A nation creates soft power through the international connections made by people and institutions who represent its most attractive resources, including culture, education, language and values.

There is a growing body of research evidence that demonstrates the impact of cultural relations and soft power on trade, inward investment, tourism, international study and diplomatic influence. Soft Power Today (October 2017), a report published by the British Council and the University of Edinburgh, found that countries which invest in overseas cultural institutes see significant returns. For example, a 1% increase in the number of locations a cultural institution covers results in a near 0.66% increase in Foreign Direct Investment for the parent country. In 2016, such a rise would have been worth £1.3bn for the UK.

The development of international connections will only become more important in the current time as we move out of the Covid19 Pandemic. As the British Council’s Insight team wrote in August 2020 post the UK’s integrated review, the very currency of Soft Power – namely, trust – is now in short supply in an increasingly fractured political environment. As different countries handle the pandemic in different ways, this will have lasting implications for each country and how they are perceived. Some will be seen as more attractive and trustworthy as a result.

Additionality and trust

The British Council works in ways which are complementary to and sometimes distinctive from the approaches used by government. This additionality centres on two capabilities: trust-building and relationship-building over the long term. We have a deep understanding of how to build trust in many different cultures. This ability relies on:

  • deep cultural insight derived from a long-standing presence in over 100 countries and which we share widely with our partners in the UK and internationally; 
  • a joined-up approach with the UK government and the devolved administrations in all aspects of strategy, planning, delivery and evaluation and at every level; 
  • well-established relationships and networks with opinion-formers, decision-makers, and current and future leaders at every level who will be important for the UK’s international relations and wider networks of influence for years to come; 
  • authoritative subject matter specialists who have in depth knowledge of both UK excellence in their field and how this is relevant to the needs and interests of partners around the world; 
  • the ability to mobilise people and organisations from all areas of the UK for international relationship-building – including artists, educators, scientists and researchers, civil society and city leaders, sportspeople, policy makers, next generation leaders and young people;
  • a commitment to putting mutuality at the heart of all relationships.

It is the ability to combine these attributes in holistic approaches which are relevant to multiple audiences, particularly young people, which makes cultural relations so effective.

The British Council supports international cultural relations for the four nations of the UK because of a commitment to working for mutual benefit, long-term engagement and its operational independence from any government. The latter of these facets means that we are not seen as an instrument of the objectives of any UK government. This enhances our effectiveness at times when government-to-government relations are difficult, and in contexts where the ability to build trust with civil society organisations is particularly valuable.

Mutual benefit and trust

Everything we do aims to create mutual benefit. By building long term trust we help to create a more favourable context in which people and organisations in the UK can achieve their international objectives in ways which support social, cultural and economic development for all participants. The British Council’s Value of Trust report (July 2018) explains the current relevance of multiple actors cooperating to build trust between nations:

Many concepts of trust in international relations have traditionally focused on state-to-state interactions and often specifically the personal bonds between leaders. Such a view reflects the importance of the individual human experience in perceptions of trust, but then neglects the myriad of other people-to-people connections and networks that are vital to sustaining trust between nations over a prolonged period. The most pressing opportunities and challenges facing the world today require co-operation which is both broader than government-to-government relationships, and longer term than election cycles. Challenges like poverty eradication can only be addressed through the combined efforts of governments, businesses and communities working together for the long term. The success of a framework like the Sustainable Development Goals relies on the continued co-operation of state and non-state actors, private sector and civil society.

Research by Ipsos MORI in 2020 shows a strong association between trust and intentions to engage with the UK. Young people in the G20 who trust the UK are twice as likely to say they intend to engage compared with those who distrust the UK. The study reveals a strong association between trust in the UK and belief that the UK has values and qualities that people think are important. In 2020, among young people in the G20, we found that 76% of those who think the UK stands for these values and qualities trust British people. Only 44% of those who think the UK is poor at supporting them trust the UK.

Cultural engagement is powerful for demonstrating national qualities and values and earning trust. 50% of those who have been involved with UK cultural relations report that they think the UK demonstrates trustful values and qualities, compared with 31% of those who have not been involved in cultural relations.

Scotland’s soft power

British Council Scotland is committed to ensuring that Scotland’s notable strengths continue to thrive. To that end, we commissioned research that builds on previous research commissioned by British Council Wales: The Wales Soft Power Barometer (2018), published by the British Council in partnership with Portland Communications. Published in early 2020, Gauging International Perceptions, Scotland and Soft Power constituted the first empirical analysis of the measurement of the soft power resources of Scotland. Comparing nine significant global geographies; those being: 

  • Catalonia, Spain 
  • Corsica, France 
  • Flanders, Belgium 
  • Hokkaido, Japan 
  • Jeju, South Korea 
  • Northern Ireland, UK 
  • Puerto Rico, USA 
  • Quebec, Canada 
  • Wales, UK 

The research commissioned by British Council Scotland undertakes a deeper mining of this data from a Scotland perspective, to help provide insight into Scotland’s particular strengths as well as to identify areas for future focus. We can see that Scotland is placed:

  • Second overall
  • First in the categories of education, enterprise and digital
  • Second in the culture category.

This is notable given that the methodology includes significant polling undertaken in key overseas countries, including those of particular interest to Scottish Government: Canada, China, United Arab Emirates, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Japan, Qatar and the United States of America.

The author notes in the report that “Soft power approaches are vital for devolved governments’ international objectives and provides them with a number of tools to engage with potential international partners and build meaningful cross-border relationships”.

In a follow-on article from 2020: International Perceptions of the Whole of the UK our research team highlights the role of soft power for regional governments. Our research suggests that Scotland is well-positioned to respond to this. Outside of the UK, for example in India, the National Education Policy has created the conditions for growth in international collaboration delivered at state-level. British Council Scotland’s recent collaboration work in higher education partnerships with Telangana and Karnataka have indicated how positive collaboration can be at this sub-state level. Key ideas from our research into internationalising higher education are outlined below.

As noted in the Gauging International Perceptions report, a notable strength of Scotland’s soft power is the education sector. The results gathered in 2019, show that Scotland stood ‘head and shoulders above’ the other regions measured in terms of global perceptions of the sector. A key recommendation given, was to place education and innovation at the cornerstone of Scotland’s global narrative. In 2019, British Council Scotland re-commissioned an updated study into the education system in Scotland and what makes it distinctive.

Published earlier this year, the Strategic analysis of the Scottish higher education sector’s distinctive assets, report outlines five key distinctive assets of the higher education sector in Scotland. It shows the sector is integrated, inclusive, highly internationalised and is defined by a focus on the public good, combined with world-leading teaching and research output. It reveals some of the innovations that have taken place in the seven years since the initial report in research in 2013: in student-centred policy development, research innovation and in collaboration with business and the public sector to ensure high rates of graduate employability.

The analysis, together with case studies provides a unique snapshot of a world-class higher education system. We are currently in the process of using the updated report to support collaboration with India, Sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and China in initial stages.

Internationalising Higher Education

Both our Higher Education Assets report and the Gauging International Perceptions report recommend the Scottish Government to develop an International Higher Education Strategy and we welcome the Scottish Government’s current commitment. Both these pieces of research offer useful insights that can help in policy development. Supporting an international strategy with investment for the long term that links and builds on components of the Scottish Government’s international framework would be welcome. A complimentary approach to the UK Government’s International Education Strategy where appropriate could help ensure Scotland could gain optimal benefit from both.

Within the current international work of the Scottish Government, the geographic and sector focus are positive from an education perspective. Our research supports the development of long-term, multi-year strategic collaboration agreements with regions and governments, as well as relevant agencies in priority geographies, to help support increased impact. The increase in funding to the Saltire scholarships and the development of the Saltire Emerging Researcher Scheme is a positive start, and a strategic approach - as noted in research evidence, could increase impact and recognition by the Governments’ priority countries going forward.

The commitment to develop an Education Exchange Programme is also a positive one and developing this in tandem with Scottish Government’s overall international policy development would be a good outcome. In addition, the programme could be linked to other components of the education system. For instance, a well-resourced and effective language learning strategy that complements the exchange programme would be beneficial. British Council’s considerable experience of language learning and teaching offers insight in this regard. In addition, ensuring that beneficiaries, including young people’s views inform the design of the programme is also important. Data from our GlobeScotters surveys in 2018 and 2021 (published later this year) is useful insight, particularly around the appetite for high quality language learning opportunities.

Arts Assets report

Later this year, British Council Scotland will publish its Arts Assets Report, reporting on results from the international research survey What Makes Scotland’s cultural sector distinctive? which ran during May and June 2021, gathering perspectives from the culture sector, professionals and policymakers in 23 countries in addition to Scotland.

The narrative report Cultural Assets of Scotland will present combined findings from the overall study of which this survey is a part. A series of 10 focus groups and desk research was undertaken alongside the survey to identify and explore distinctive aspects of Scotland’s arts and culture sector that stand out within the UK and internationally.

The research was commissioned by British Council Scotland and Creative Scotland to identify aspects of Scotland’s arts and culture sector that stand out in the UK and internationally. The objective of the overall research is to inform how we understand the Scottish sector and share its story internally with policymakers, and internationally.

Through deploying these insights, research and our global network and sector expertise we support Scottish Government and Scotland’s Universities to identify and access international opportunities based on their distinctive assets and international strengths in research, teaching and learning.


We hope these views on the benefits of cultural relations and soft power are will be of interest to the Committee, and we will be happy to provide more information on any aspect of what we have discussed. We will also welcome any request to find out more about the wider work and research of the British Council in Scotland, the UK and internationally.