Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

They've Invited Me to Present My Papers, and This Time It's Personal

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

They've Invited Me to Present My Papers, and This Time It's Personal

Article excerpt

The examiner examined: Martin Cortazzi on the day a UK university asked him, rather apologetically, to show them his passport.

I'm in central China for a series of working visits to universities: this city alone has 78. So far, I haven't been asked any questions by Chinese universities about my passport. Why would I be? Here, international visitors are welcomed with banquets.

This contrasts with the experience I had recently when examining a doctoral thesis at a world top-200 UK university. After the (successful) viva, the office processing my expenses claim suddenly asked to see my passport or a scanned certified copy of the main pages.

I don't recall ever having had to produce a passport when examining at 25 other universities. So why was it necessary here?

At first I thought it was a joke, but the university - very apologetically - informed me that it must now check my passport in accordance with UK Border Agency regulations. It seems that staff visiting British universities from another British university for examining purposes must now undergo UKBA checks.

No wonder the agency is short of staff and was in trouble recently over long queues at airports: even without the Olympics, there is clearly too much red (white and blue) tape.

Yes, my family name is Italian, and it's true that my grandfather's grandfather came to the UK from the Mediterranean and his grandfathers were diplomats for the Venetian Republic, before Italy was Italy - but we consider ourselves British. How many generations does it take to be British? No doubt I have British blood, but a fair amount is Italian, too (and Greek and Swiss). Shall I go to the genetics department to give a blood sample so someone can look into this?

Suppose I don't have a passport. Does every external examiner have to be an international traveller? The university's email explained (and it took more than 600 words) that there is an alternative: examiners can bring a full UK adoption certificate, birth certificate, naturalisation paper, immigration status document or letter from the Home Office. But none of these is sufficient on its own: all must be produced "in combination with an official document giving the person's National Insurance Number and their name issued by a Government agency or a previous employer".

Times change. Maybe we should ask who we are. After a fair amount of reading in Buddhist, Christian and Islamic philosophy about finding my true self, I am not completely unprepared for this.

"If this is not a joke", I replied, "and just a wheeze to pretend we (I provisionally count myself as part of the 'we' here) are controlling immigration, please tell me where your office is located on campus and I will be happy to present myself with a passport or other evidence that I am neither a legal nor an illegal immigrant and we can discuss existentialism while I prove that I am me. …

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