It was traditionally a beacon of global influence, central to Britain’s post-colonial soft power strategy.
However, the British Council has been beset by crises in recent years, from financial struggles following Covid to a decision in 2021 to strip the council of its role in running the post-Brexit replacement of the Erasmus student exchange scheme.
Now language teachers on the council’s British Mexico programme say their placements have been beset by chaos and their safety put at risk, leaving them facing financial hardship after severe delays to payments and grants below the UK minimum wage level.
Participants reported having to quit after just three months because of “unlivable” salaries and visas that prevented them from obtaining any other work.
Of the 11 participants who started in September, at least five are known to have resigned and have been asked to repay hundreds of pounds of grant, leaving some heavily in debt.
Dr Olivia Arigho-Stiles, an academic in Latin American studies who quit after three months, said she felt “hugely betrayed” by the organisation.
“I feel profoundly misled, and it seems appalling to me that they would send us half way around the world, in a country with a high crime rate, and expect us to live on such low wages,” she told the Telegraph.
She said the monthly salary of 8,000 pesos (around £366) had put the teachers’ safety “at risk”, including her own when she was followed while walking home late at night after saving money on a taxi.
She added that another teacher had considered renting an apartment in an “extremely dangerous” neighbourhood of Mexico City, and a third had been locked inside a local taxi and asked for a higher fare after avoiding more expensive but safer methods of transport.
“There are high levels of violent crime in parts of the city, and in failing to pay us properly, the British Council put us at risk,” she said.
Participants of an equivalent US programme were paid 14,000 pesos (£640), and the average salary of a Mexican teacher stands at around 17,000 pesos (£777) at the lowest range.
The teachers also reported receiving their first grant instalment 11 weeks late because of delays after Mexico pulled its funding at the last minute.
Their visas were sponsored by the Mexican education authority, Secretaría de Educación Pública, which prevented them from taking on any additional work in the country.
This left them resorting to finding international work online or plundering their savings, with no additional financial support from the British Council.
One teacher was fired from the programme and had their visa revoked after trying to take on additional work, the Telegraph was told.
‘Impossible to survive’
Elle Simpson, another teacher on the programme, said the low salary and delays made it “impossible to survive, never mind live comfortably”.
She paid 5,000 pesos (£229) on rent, leaving just 3,000 pesos (£137) spending money per month, but that was whittled away further by additional costs for school supplies. She added that her salary equated to £6.91 per hour, almost a third below UK minimum wage.
“British Council’s incompetencies placed some participants in vulnerable positions of having to borrow money or withhold rent from landlords,” she said.
“From start to finish, the process caused a lot of stress. I have been forced into debt by the programme that boasts opportunities and growth.”
Meanwhile, teachers also revealed that just four weeks before the start of the programme the British Council told them it might be cancelled because of the funding dilemmas.
Dr Arigho-Stiles said she had “never felt such stress” upon receiving the news as she had already left her job and flat in London.
‘Totally chaotic from start to end’
While the programme did eventually go ahead, Dr Arigho-Stiles said it was “totally chaotic from start to end”. The teachers reported receiving no induction in Mexico, no support with housing and little support with visas.
All participants who have since quit have also been requested to pay back hundreds of pounds, along with returning their temporary residency cards.
Revealing her “worry for the future”, Dr Arigho-Stiles said she wanted the council to stop demanding she pay back around £800 and “apologise” for what she had experienced.
“British Council misled us by saying we could live on the salary in Mexico City, they failed to support us every step of the way,” she said.
A British Council spokesperson said: “The British Council’s Language Assistants Programme offers paid placements to around 1,800 English Language Assistants every year in 14 destinations around the world, providing unique opportunities to those who want to both assist with teaching and have invaluable life experiences.
“Over 130,000 UK students also benefit from incoming Foreign Language Assistants in their schools. In this way, the programme strengthens educational and cultural links between the UK and other countries.
“We work closely with overseas partner organisations and host institutions to ensure the best possible experience for Language Assistants. This includes providing comprehensive briefings and guidance prior to departure and access to a dedicated support team throughout the programme.
“Monthly allowances for these placements are not determined by the British Council, but by the host country, and are clearly communicated to those applying to the programme. We encourage participants to ensure that they can cover costs associated with their placement (such as travel, accommodation and insurance) and advise that access to additional funds may be required in some areas.
“We will continue to keep the programmes under review and consider feedback from participants, the overwhelming majority of which is extremely positive. Working with our partners and host institutions to ensure our programmes provide both a safe and enjoyable experience is of the utmost importance to us.”