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45 (140) 2020
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Interviews

“The world of learning is changing before our eyes”

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Colm McGivern, Director of British Council Poland, talks to the BPCC’s Michael Dembinski about how Covid-19 has accelerated the way language courses are delivered – and how the internationalisation of higher education spurs economic development.

Warsaw is a special place among the many capital cities around the world where the British Council is present. It was one of the first four British Council offices in the world, opening in 1938. “This year, we are celebrating our 82nd birthday. The founding premise of the organisation was to fight the rise of fascism,” says Mr McGivern. “Warsaw was a strategic choice, along with Cairo [and Bucharest and Lisbon – ed] – to strengthen relations between people of different cultures, and in turn combat the root causes of intolerance. The ideals of the British Council were and remain to initiate conversations to build trust. Here in Poland we did this through the programmes linked to the Know-How Fund, activities in the old British Council library on Aleje Jerozolimskie, and in today’s new premises on ulica Koszykowa where we have a bustling culture centre, offering a palette of top-quality learning that strengthens ties and build long-lasting friendships.”

For an organisation which thrives on bringing people together to learn, the Covid pandemic must have created enormous disruption. And yet the British Council is not only coping, it’s moving up a gear. “Above all it has forced us to accelerate the shift towards online learning. We knew we could do it – we had the technology, we had the platforms in place, our teachers adapted quickly. The result – Learn English Online with the British Council – can accommodate classes from Gdansk to Zakopane, accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, tailoring learning to students’ needs. This is a new way to access opportunities. It’s something that was going to happen anyway – Covid has served to accelerate our progress in this direction”, says Mr McGivern.

“Our teachers have adapted quickly to new ways of working. The British Council has always prided ourselves as having the best English teachers in the country”, he says. But doesn’t a purely online course miss out on the human interaction at the heart of the learning process? “For many, blended learning is the most desirable way to learn a language. Some face-to-face, some online – but most importantly, it has to be a flexible offer that allows each student to work at their own pace. Our new menu of services does just that: Personalised study plans, live online courses, expert teachers”.

Face-to-face classes will be resuming this weekend; classes are almost full – Covid precautions will of course be observed. “The mix of face-to-face with online is the future. The world of learning is changing before our eyes; learners can access what they need when they need it”. And geography ceases to be a barrier. The British Council has teaching centres in Warsaw, Kraków and Wrocław, but now, the rest of Poland can also be served.

Are the latter two the result of those cities’ success in attracted shared services? “We are very much present in the shared-services space, in particular in the area of assessing language competence. Our Aptis tool allows corporate HR departments to accurately assess a given candidate’s standard of English. We also prepare bespoke training for corporate clients – professional English and technical English for specific purposes. These flexible courses are custom-made around clients’ needs”.

The British Council also helps UK Universities and Awarding Bodies to access the Polish market. “As an example, we work closely with ACCA (the world leading accountancy association), providing examination services to their candidates. We’ve just helped nearly 700 ACCA candidates in September, with more in December. In total, we conduct 20,000 examinations around Poland every year for professional bodies like ACCA, UK Universities, and for awarding bodies like Cambridge.”

In last year’s EF English Proficiency Index ranking, Poland came 11th out of 100 countries surveyed, above Belgium or Switzerland, and rated ‘very high proficiency’. “I rate Poles’ capability to learn English incredibly highly”, says Mr McGivern, “they are talented and motivated, with a desire for a better future, and they see language as a good way of doing that”.

As well as working with individual learners, corporate clients and professional bodies, the British Council also works closely with the Polish education system, in particular with Polish teachers of the English language. “We assist them in their progress at a systemic level. The Polish education ministry has acknowledged the British Council’s Aptis test as a tool in delivering an ever-higher quality of English in Poland’s schools, and importantly teachers can use it for professional development points”, says Mr McGivern.

“We also work with Poland’s higher education sector. While on one hand, the number of young Poles studying in the UK continues to rise, on the other, more and more students from around the world are coming to study at Polish universities. This ‘brain circulation’ is a powerful global phenomenon. It leads to greater international connections, and in particular, to stronger research connectivity. You can see the international diversification across Poland’s campuses”, he says.

“A key factor in the success of any country’s higher education establishments is the level of international cooperation, in particular around scientific research. The UK’s international citations are consistently in the world’s top two or three, in areas such as life sciences, IT, business and humanities. This is the key for economic development”.

“The British Council is working with higher-education partners in Poland to increase this internationalisation, through enhanced research connections. We do this by promoting teaching excellence, and work closely alongside NAWA, the Polish national agency for academic exchange. The aim here is to help build Poland’s reputation through the creation of transnational education partnerships between two or three universities from different countries. The power of international connectivity will improve Poland’s higher-education institutions.”

But it’s not just about learning English and promoting the internationalisation of higher education.

“The British Council’s cultural programme around the arts is also important – music, animation, film, the visual arts, disability arts – there is a rich arts scene in both countries, and our mission is to promote the best of UK arts and culture in Poland, creating connections between people, and offering often new ways of seeing life in both places”, says Mr McGivern. Is there any distinction between what the British Embassy does in this space and what you do? “We have very close collaborative relations with the Embassy, and take the lead in things related to education and cultural exchange with the UK. We see ourselves as an important part of the UK family; we are strategically aligned with what the Embassy is doing”, he says.

How does Mr McGivern find Poland? “We’ve been here just over a year, and we love it! Warsaw is an incredibly liveable city, and Poland is a treat to discover. We spent our summer holidays here, toured the country, and enjoyed every moment. Personally and professionally I could not be happier!”.

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