The British Council chair Stevie Spring CBE has visited Bangladesh for the first time recently. She became chair of the British Council in August 2019. Stevie Spring came here to attend the 70th founding anniversary of The British Council’s Dhaka office. Ahmed Deepto of Prothom Alo talked with her on 22 November about British Council's operations, the relationship between UK and Bangladesh, Dhaka University and other issues.
British Council Bangladesh is observing its 70 years of opening office in Dhaka. What is the significance of this and its operations in Bangladesh?
Bangladesh has always been our priority. Bangladesh is the country where we had one of our early offices. We were here 20 years before Bangladesh's independence and we have been working together since then. Obviously, Bangladesh is an important friend to the UK and vice versa. We have very friendly ties with Bangladesh. I have already met cousins of three of my friends since I've been here. I met people that I don't know, but are somehow related to Bangladeshi friends in the UK. The friendship network between the two nations is very strong and diverse.
How can the British Council play a greater role in promoting English education in Bangladesh?
Well, the first thing we do is we make friends. We hold hands across the world and share experiences, ideas and friendships. We learn from our Bangladeshi friends in the UK and you learn, hopefully, from your UK friends here. Through arts and culture, we bring different ideas, perspectives to all of the issues that matter among all of us such as poverty, climate change, and access to education. We helped to bring the best ideas from the UK to Bangladesh. We help with curriculum and the way of teaching because being able to speak a language doesn't mean that you are able to teach it. We spend lots of our time teaching the teachers. That is the important role we play here. So, we have a very strong office in Bangladesh. In three different offices, we have 225 people all working together across arts, culture and education.
How can the British Council play a greater role in promoting the English Language in Bangladesh?
That's one of the things that I am working on and talking about over the last three days. I think there is a desire amongst Bangladeshi people to speak, to learn good English and to improve their English. So I think the demand is already there. What we need to do is to meet the supply. We want to spread beyond teaching centres and teach the teachers. You might speak a language very well, but that doesn't mean you can teach it well. In Bangladesh, there is a huge desire of both parents and students to speak a second language and English is the first choice. So I think the job of the British council is more to improve teaching generally across the country, improve the standard of teaching and deliver an absolutely top class of teaching and assessment of English as a spoken and written language.
You said the demand is there and it depends on the supply. Do you have any plans to extend programmes at educational institutions in Bangladesh?
I think that access to a good education for everybody is at the heart of what we're doing. We are absolutely committed to that. You know Bangladesh spends a relatively low percentage of GDP on education compared to many other nations. So I think one of our jobs is to encourage additional investment in education. An educated youth can talk about climate change, gender equality and can help with economic growth, can help the civil society and can build Bangladesh. You know Bangladesh is rising as a country that has already spent half a century of its birth. Bangladesh has achieved so much but I still think there are things to achieve.
How can the British Council help to improve the English language skills of the youth globally and what role can you play, to improve the quality of English education in schools and colleges in Bangladesh?
We can help in consultancy and advice to the ministry of education to help with finessing the curriculum. We can help teach the teachers to be better at teaching. We can direct and deliver teaching at a high standard. And we can set a standard for how it could be taught and is taught now. On the other hand, we have a cultural and societal responsibility to allow access to people that can not necessarily afford or can access face to face, direct lessons from British Council. We also made information and products online so that teachers and people can access and be able to self-teaching.
You met the University of Dhaka's Vice Chancellor yesterday (21 Nov). What did you discuss?
We discussed the state of education in Bangladesh. We also talked about how we can make it easier for the UK students who want to come to Bangladesh and vice versa. We talked about what additional work we can do for joint research initiatives among universities of Bangladesh and the UK.
The University of Dhaka is celebrating its 100 years. But, like last year, this time too DU's position remains unchanged at the UK-based education and research organisation QS ranking. The ranking is 801-1000th among 1,300 universities worldwide. The size of the university is increasing year by year, but it is not advancing in terms of quality research and education.
I think you always should be careful about the global rankings. I think the perception of research is the key driver. That's where we can help collaborate between universities in Dhaka and in the UK. My perception is that Dhaka University certainly has a robust and strong reputation in this region. I was involved in a university of the UK that was number 19 in one ranking and number 65 in another. So it depends on which ranking you are looking at.
Women's participation has increased in every sphere of society. At the same time, various types of violence against women and children have increased. It did not stop during the corona epidemic. What else can be done to stop violence against women and children and ensure equal rights for them?
Well, that's a very complex question. There isn't one small simple solution because all of the issues that Bangladesh face in terms of economic strength, equality, human rights, climate change, acceptance of religions and acceptance of LGBT are very complex social issues that are interrelated. What we do here in the British council is a lot of work specifically on programmes that help within civil society to allow girls and women to think about their choices and its starting point is education. But we are not talking only with the girls, you have to include men, boys, parents, teachers and media in the process. You have to use all of the influences, local leaders, politicians, religious leaders like Imams of the mosque. So it's about convening the conversations and making sure that the conversations are proper. Because, violence against women and children particularly sexual violence and dowry are coming back during the pandemic because of pressures, helplessness and poverty.
I don't pretend to be an expert here, but that is one of the reasons we organised WOW ((Women of the World) festivals and events around the world including in Australia, New York, Nepal, Pakistan, Turkey and Bangladesh. The WOW festival was held in Dhaka and in some of the regions of this country to convene the conversations. I think the more we talk about it, the more open we are about it, the chance is more to find a solution.
This is your first visit to Bangladesh, what is your key takeaway and what did you enjoy most here?
I have been completely overwhelmed. Bangladeshi people are amongst the friendliest people that I have ever met around the world. The thing that struck me most, everybody is so delighted here. When people say, yes, I am coming to Bangladesh, they actually mean coming to India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But I have come just for Bangladesh. And apparently, that's quite rare. My regret is that I am not staying longer. I would love to get outside of Dhaka and to see more of the rest of the country. And that is my excuse to come back! I have been jam-packed with a tight schedule. So I squeezed 3 months of work into just 3 days.
Thank you for your valuable time.