British professor quits as external examiner over passport check

UCL academic ‘staggered by the levels of mistrust’ shown as institutions ‘over-comply’ with Home Office policy

January 21, 2020
Source: iStock

A British academic has rejected an invitation to act as an external examiner because of what he said were unnecessary passport checks that fed into a “culture of fear” created by the Home Office’s attitude towards immigration.

Eric Barendt, emeritus professor of law at UCL, said that he was “amazed and appalled” to be asked to produce a passport, either in person or in the post, so that he could externally examine a PhD at Middlesex University.

Professor Barendt, who previously taught at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, accused Middlesex of “over-compliance” with Home Office policy.

“There does not seem to be a legal duty to check passports, but it provides the university with a defence if they are found to have employed an illegal immigrant,” Professor Barendt said. “They can have no doubt that I have the right to work here, as there are no grounds for believing me to be an illegal immigrant.”

Professor Barendt said that he had refused the offer because he was “staggered by the levels of mistrust” the policy displayed. In the past, “you would trust that an academic employed by another university was legally safe, as it is illegal to employ an illegal immigrant”.

Michelle Ryan, professor of psychology at the University of Exeter, an Australian with indefinite leave to remain (ILR) after living in the UK for 17 years, said that she was asked to provide copies of her passport and visas before acting as an external examiner at another institution. She was also asked to bring the physical documents to the viva.

Professor Ryan said that the university, which she did not wish to name, initially refused to accept the ILR stamp in her passport as valid evidence and asked her to apply for a biometric residence permit, at a cost of £229.

It was only after talking to a senior member of staff that the university allowed the viva to go ahead without the new document.

“I understand that universities are trying to follow Home Office guidelines and are trying to minimise risk. But in doing so they are perpetuating the hostile environment which alienates people who have a right to work in the UK and who wish to contribute,” Professor Ryan said.

A Middlesex spokeswoman said: “Middlesex University follows Home Office guidance when recruiting permanent and temporary staff, including external examiners.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Passport check causes external examiner to quit

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Reader's comments (19)

We have to bear in mind that everyone is equal in front of law. I was also asked to show my original passport when I was invited to act as an external examiner. If the university becomes selective in choosing who to ask and not to ask - then there is an opportunity for making mistakes.
Academics need to defend their independence in the current hostile climate of "populism" (ie pandering to society's worst inclinations to gain power). Acting on the basis of integrity and science rather than following rules set by extremist politicians is laudable. Too many people working in universities are not doing this though, which is why they are becoming miserable places to work in.
Grow up, show your passport and get on with the task you've been asked and paid to do. We cant pick and choose the laws we wish to obey
Actually if we all start doing it there will be no one to act as external examiner. The passport check is completely unnecessary and unacceptable. It achieves nothing.
It has become normal to produce your passport for all such external work so I turn up with it. As said above, there are many irksome laws for the well-behaved but they are there to stop abuses of the system.
If laws are unjust, resistance becomes duty. The Holocaust was legal, segregation was legal, and slavery was legal.
Showing evidence of nationality and right to work is common in all trades before employment commences. Nothing special here.
A misprint in the article - presumably 'bibliometric residence permits' don't exist and should be 'biometric'. Unless the Times Higher has got the scoop on the consequences of REF 2021!
I was born in the UK from UK born parents and some organisations like banks or other financial institutions demand ID such as passports. In fact I have been asked for that and some kind of official document like a utility or council tax bill. It's generally not the legalities but the people in the companies who create the internal compliance regulations. It's all about avoiding legal action, nothing to do with feelings facts or detail. "Have all the boxes been ticked, so we can we avoid being sued or prosecuted?" Sad really, not just that it has to be done at all but that organisations employ people who make it a mission in life to look for problems instead of just getting on with a proper job. There are too many under-occupied lawyers barrel-scraping for litigation.
'A Middlesex spokeswoman said: “Middlesex University follows Home Office guidance when recruiting permanent and temporary staff, including external examiners.”' Yes, I rather believe that is precisely Professor Barendt's complaint. Sanity has long since left the building.
Nothing to see here. Move on.
All employers are legally required to carry out right to work checks and can't pick and choose who to check. While an ILR stamp in an expired passport is valid for travel, it is not on the list of documents employers can accept as proof of the right to work (this is because the Home Office wants to 'encourage' people to transfer to the BRP). The problem with 'resistance' or non-compliance is that universities face regular Home Office audits (our last audit took 5 days and included checks on external examiners' rights to work) and non-compliance can have serious consequences for the university's status as a visa sponsor, and therefore on staff and students with visas. Universities don't really have any choice in the matter - it is a hostile environment, but the responsibility of the government, not of the employer who has to comply with the law.
What the Home Office has not realised is that the more irksome they make it to work in this country legally, the more people are liable to work illegally because it is too much bother. When I registered to study for a PhD at the university where I work, they wanted to see my passport & proof of residence despite the fact they'd been paying me for a whole year... and yes, I did use my payslip as proof of address :)
I gather that external examiners are employees in Britain? What statutory legal and laboral rights do they then acquire? By the same token, if you give an invited lecture or a seminar, do you also acquire rights from the academic institution that hosts you?
Oxbridge (and Manchester Met) do it better than Uxbridge, according to Paul Temple in 2018: https://srheblog.com/2018/05/
Of course the University concerned is " just applying the law" and protesting about the need to show a passport, immigration status etc is all a bit after the event (stable doors, horses bolting ...)Universities (their VCs , UUK et al ) should have been much much more vocal a very long time ago and proactively objected to being used as immigration enforcement agents. But they didn't and it is what it is. But given that the external examiner system is dependent on so much goodwill and is hardly well remunerated,I am surprised more people haven't just packed it in when presented with this bureaucratic and intrusive request for what is practically a voluntary or " done as a favour" activity. Maybe they have, but just done so quietly. Academia puts up with too much. Ask to be properly paid if it's a task that's classed as work requiring immigration clearance.
A lot of comments here are missing the point. Eric Barendt will *already* have had his passport checked as part of the process of becoming an employee at UCL. Middlesex doing so *again* is therefore redundant, since they're just paying him a fee, not "employing" him.
I see from HMRC documents that external examiners of postgraduate degrees are not employees. Their fees under a contract for services are taxed as trade profits. The immigration law requirement to check I.D. applies only to employees or those paid under a contract of service, not those paid under a contract for services, Presumably UUK could issue some clarification.
Really this is newsworthy?

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