by Steve A. Morrell
Country Director, The British Council, Gill Westaway is an unavoidable adjunct to the British Council. Alternatively The British Council and Gill Westaway seemingly are synonymous entities and its image was, since she assumed her functions, projected a strong profile that most young people have come to depend on its institutional character for self development. Self development in many fields of endeavour.
Gill Westaway ~ pic: Britishcouncil.org
Gill Westaway will be leaving the British Council on premature retirement end August.
'The Island' met her last week. We interviewed her at her office.
What would you have liked to have accomplished but could not over the past few years you’ve been here. What more could you have done?
( Long Pause)
That’s not an easy question to answer. Right take these premises. The building we are in. Its beauty and character are quite outstanding. What you see on the other side was originally the Director’s residence. Now houses the library and sundry stuff. It has to come down. Those are our plans. Quite tatty, leaks, infested with vermin.
This building as well?
Not this one. This is a heritage site. This will stay. Refurbishing; yes; but the building will not be torn down.
We have over 5000 students here studying English. Additionally 65,000 enlisted for our Exams, and we have over 26,000 members in Sri Lanka. This is the largest library, British council Library in the world.
Why are you so strong here than any other country?
In Sri Lanka there is thirst for knowledge. I assumed duties here 2006. What I first did was visit the Colombo Book Fare. Literally million or more people buying books. Youngsters. Not fancy videos, or films, and so forth, but Books. This is a society with real respect and thirst for education. That should answer your question.
We certainly do not claim to up the standard of English, but our job is to make the language available to as many as possible. Many want to improve their standard of English. Not merely students, but the business sector as well because importance of English could assist such organizations deal with the outside world more confidently. With English more opportunities open for young people to select future careers confidently.
What we also do is we promote teacher involvement in our work. We put them in contact with institutions in The UK, as much as we also have them contact Schools here. There has been healthy interaction between both countries. In some instances students from the UK visit Schools here as much as much as Sri Lanka students visit their contacts students in the UK. That sort of thing has happened.. E’Mail and the web is used quite a lot. These applications have widened possibilities quite a lot.
The earlier British Council building in Colombo
The British Council is strong in Colombo and Kandy what of the other Provinces. Why have you not spread yourself out in that direction.
We were in Jaffna recently. 83 % already are conversant with the language. They are extremely keen the British Council establishes one in Jaffna. Our plans for future expansion will include Jaffna and Matara.
Why not in more Provincial Capitals?
Just one reason. Funds. We are short of funds. We have to generate our own funds for expansion.
You’re not serious, right?
Very. Government assistance is limited, and we work to an annual budget.
Maybe, but if you plan for such extension work well in time you might get funding you need?
Its not that simple. We do get some allocations but inadequate to meet expenses such as you describe. Nevertheless such possibilities are under serious consideration.
How many books in your library?
I dont know. Just the other day we had a lorry being loaded with books. We were getting rid of what we don’t want. The British council certainly does not have books for every subject under the sun. For instance, Medicine; some yes, but don’t come looking for involved reading. You wont find it here.
You will find resistance to learning English. Particularly Universities. How would you cope with such negative approaches?
What you mean is the ‘Kaduwa’? the sword? Yes we have encountered such resistance but rather than lecture people on benefits of learning English, we have demonstrated its advantages. The GTZ, provided funds for purposes quite like this. North and East, for instance; for instruction to public servants in the use of English and its advantages.
Our government Grant for Sri Lanka is small. That means we have to work closely with the private sector. HSBC is one. They work with us on some of our projects. Similarly some others.
We are involved with many subjects, climate change, fashion designing, value chain, the UK still has a lot to offer. We interact as equals. We learn so much from Sri Lanka, as much as we dispense what we know that could benefit Sri Lanka. We work closely with Vice Chancellors of Universities. As well.
You must have some future plans. What are your plans?
I’ve been with the British Council 28 years. Working in the UK, Kenya, Indonesia, The Phillippines, and Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka will not be rid of me yet. Retire effective end August, visit my Mother in Australia, and come back here to take up my new job.
I like Sri Lanka. I’ve made genuine friends here. Mainly Sri Lankan. Good people. People who I could be comfortable visiting unannounced, just to chat.
I like the food. Yes the kottu as well; Sri Lanka has become my home. At least the immediate future.
Anything left for your successor to do? A man?
He’ll have lots to do. That’s what change is all about. Somebody new comes along and contributes what he could have in mind. - couretsy: The island -