:: Passports in academia

Passports for academics and musicians

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018


This is an update of my previous one on the topic to draw attention to Peter Scott’s Guardian piece this morning (sorry subscribers…). The fact that the Professor of Higher Education Studies at the Institute of Education has to show his passport to do a visiting lecture shows just how absurd the system has become. I happen to know that he’s not the only senior academic in the IoE who refuses to go along with this enforced alienation of British citizens. The comments under the by-line are interesting too – plenty from academics and administrators who’ve fallen foul of the same rules but also an undercurrent of troll-like contributions from those who think the hostile environment should be the new (continuing) normal. In fact, one doesn’t have to show one’s passport – it’s just a convenient way for university administrators to apply government policy – and I have to say that on the occasions when I’ve been asked for it the relevant admin person has clearly enjoyed  being an enforcer and raising the question of non-payment. It’s gets doubly daft, as Prof Scott and several others point out, when you wonder who in the Home Office imagines that illegal immigrants live off the fees paid to visiting lecturers. For me, the assumption that I’m an illegal immigrant unless I can prove otherwise makes me a foreigner in my own country. A passport, whatever its colour, is a document that you use when wanting to visit a foreign country, not one that proves you live in one.

It comes down to trust. University administrators don’t trust academics on all sorts of issues, and that lack of trust is what underpins much of the admin structure. If you don’t trust your employees it’s not that difficult to become an agent of government. The government doesn’t trust anybody.



This was my original post:

The cruel and degrading treatment that the British government inflicts on those in the desperate situation of not being able to prove their citizenship reminded me of the spat I had with Aldeburgh some years ago. My problem was trivial, and in the first instance only involved one engagement,  compared with the appalling examples of long-term residents being deported or refused medical treatment. But it did involve my passport, and it shows that the government does not just suspect immigrants of being illegal but everybody.  It was the first time I’d been asked to show my passport in my own country, and I refused to do it. To cut a long saga short, I withdrew from the concert rather than collude with the Aldeburgh Festival’s collusion with the UKBA.  Rather than tell the government where to put their shameful policy, Aldeburgh felt they had to go along with it or risk losing the right to use overseas musicians.  What kind of government does this to its leading centres of culture? What kind of centre of culture acquiesces in such a policy? I subsequently discovered that braver souls in music promotion had no qualms about resisting the UKBA.  When Aldeburgh did Grimes on the Beach I wondered if the cast all had their passports in their pockets in case someone tried to sneak in from the sea behind them.


So musicians: keep your passports with you. Academics too. The government also requires visiting academics – British nationals giving lectures at British universities – to show their passports. The default position, as with musicians working for major promoters, is that you’re not who you say you are, and they treat you as a foreigner in your own country. If you read through my old posts you’ll see that I had a lot of support from some very unexpected sources and there has been some heartening  resistance in the academic world.  It’s yet another example of what Stefan Collini calls the ‘erosion of integrity’ in British universities, as they become ever more closely allied to the economic interests of the state rather than the educational needs and ambitions of  its people.  Stefan Collini’s piece takes as its point of departure the 1998 Bologna statement agreed by all European countries about the nature and purpose of universities, their autonomy and freedoms.


We are about to leave Europe.


We’re all immigrants…

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016


I was recently reminded of my refusal to show my passport at the Aldeburgh border when I heard that a world-renown academic had declined to show his at the University of York and was a persistent thwarter of the UKBA’s insidious policy of assuming everyone is here illegally unless they can prove otherwise. It gave a new twist to the referendum immigration debate. If I were to be offered a paid engagement at the university here I’d have to produce my passport. I’m not only a foreigner in my own country but an immigrant in my own town.  Thank heavens I can still go to a Chinese or Polish supermarket without a visa. It’s OK for the Poles and Chinese of course – they really are living in a foreign country – and I suppose it sort of puts us all on an equal footing if I have as little right to a passport-free job here as they do.

Unsurprisingly, the music profession knows nothing so banal as national boundaries. The Hilliard Ensemble was, unusually, an all-British group, though you probably wouldn’t have to delve very far to discover that half of us were descended from Johnny Foreigner (and we worked with a Norwegian saxophonist, a German violinist and an Austrian cellist among many other international musicians). Almost every other permutation of musicians I’ve worked with has been a rag tag assortment of nationalities. The Sound and the Fury, for instance, records in Austria, but apart from me are all Germans and are sponsored by Austrian Israelis. The Dowland Project currently has an American lutenist who lives in the UK, a British sax player who lives in Sweden and a Slovakian fiddle player of no fixed abode. For the Amores Pasados project we have a Swedish soprano, American and Argentinian lutenists, with another American lute player for our Josquin project. I’ve recently been in Canada working with one other Brit and two Canadians. I record for a German record company staffed by Europeans; I’ve never had to produce a passport for any gig in Europe.

We enjoy what we have in common and relish our differences. I used to think that a musical ensemble was a kind of microcosm of an ideal society, with everyone contributing and supporting each other –  and when things are going well I’m sure that’s true. When I meet up with my German friends we don’t discuss the economy or migration – except on the one occasion when Angela Merkel’s open door policy came up, and my great German friend said that for the first time in his life he was proud to be German.

None of this will change if we leave the EU, and if the pound collapses I’ll actually be rather better off. But there are no circumstances in which I could vote to leave. Europe is a vision to which we should all subscribe – surely the grandest and most human geo-socio-political concept of the late 20th century. I’m a European and have been since I was old enough to know what the word really meant, and I’m going to say a European.


Reflections on the Aldeburgh border

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013


I should have been in Aldeburgh for most of last week, but suddenly found myself with lots of time on my hands having declined to show my passport at the Aldeburgh border. Old news now, but I’ve only had to cancel a job a couple of times in my life (and then for vocal reasons) so it leaves a mark.

Was it the right thing to do, or was I just being a ranting ego maniac (as the first few people to comment on Norman Lebrecht’s Arts Journal seemed to think)?  Was I completely mad to do myself out of a week’s work at one of the world’s most iconic venues with some wonderful musicians that I’d been really looking forward to meeting?

I did manage to use the time productively (though it has been a bit weird). We’re moving house in a few weeks so I’ve spent most of the time clearing out the attic and making lots of visits to my local recycling centre.  And on Easter Day we had a great family lunch. In between I checked my newly acquired Twitter account, so was able to keep up to speed with my would-be/erstwhile colleagues who were having such a great time in Suffolk.

I couldn’t help thinking back to all those token protests of my youth – refusing to sing in places with poor human rights records, not going to South Africa during Apartheid or Israel during the Intifada and so on. And then gradually realising that the only thing affected by my position was my bank balance, and that I was doing myself out of seeing some pretty spectacular places. I think I used to drive my Hilliard colleagues mad. I refused to sing in Turkey for years, but in the end couldn’t say no to a Hilliard gig with Jan Garbarek in the Roman amphitheatre at Ephesus, and it was downhill from then on. They’re all so far away, these places, and nothing I did was going to make any difference to anything…

But with the passport business I discovered that I do have a bottom line after all. I‘m glad Concerto Caledonia had such a great time (it was especially good that they weren’t doing the usual Easter stuff that the rest of the world was wallowing in) but in the greater scheme of things music is not that important. The problem for me wasn’t really the need to identify myself per se –  it’s that we’ve never had to do that kind of thing over here until very recently: it’s what happens routinely in all those countries I used to refuse to go to. The reason it’s important is not that we need to safeguard music (I’m sure Concerto Caledonia dutifully showed their passports just as every musician has to do at the Aldeburgh border and life went on as normal) but that we don’t want to lose a society where you can go to the recycling centre and have family lunches whenever you like. The loss of larger freedoms starts with the loss of small ones.

The whole experience has certainly made me think – and turn off the autopilot for a bit. I missed the music a lot more than I thought I would (not helped by Twitter, which seemed to show David McGuiness’ musicians as virtually the only people not in thrall to seasonal composers beginning with B). On the other hand I really enjoyed my trips to the dump, and the family lunch was sheer magic (at Guy Fawkes’ birthplace…). That’s really what I want the freedom to do.  Music is all very well, but if it means colluding with the far right, you can count me out next time too.

Aldeburgh and the UKBA

Thursday, March 21st, 2013



Thanks to all those who supported my previous post out there in the ether. It was both heartening to see so many people agreeing, and awful that so many people have had terrible experiences with the UKBA. To those who were offended by my reference to pre-war Germany: I wasn’t suggesting that there was a direct comparison between Nazism and the present-day UK, but trying to make the point that greater evils begin with lesser ones.

I’m sorry to be making life difficult for Aldeburgh music, though I hope that raising the problem might ultimately be a small nail in the coffin of what is an iniquitous system. Aldeburgh is legendary for its support of young artists from all over the world, and the fact that they have to treat UK performers as potentially foreign criminals is not their fault (as many have pointed out). There’s a response from them in the Comments below my previous post.  What makes the UKBA’s policy even more sinister is that it’s clearly aimed at young artists: a quick ask-around of non-UKBA sponsored promoters revealed that they rarely had problems with visas as these were organised by performers’ agents, which performers at the beginning of their careers are much less likely to have.

Although most people were either shocked by the actions of the UKBA or had already had dealings with them so knew exactly what I was getting at, a small number favoured ID cards and the like and had no problem with showing their passports. Some people, mistakenly, thought it was a security question (terrorism is taken care of very efficiently by our security services, and an efficient terrorist will be way beyond Passports 101);  one in particular (a fellow tenor, so maybe it takes one to know one) thought I was on some kind of  ego trip (and thanks to Alan Fairs for putting him straight!). There were also those who didn’t read it closely enough and thought I had literally  been confronted by a border guard in the dressing room.

I don’t have a problem with confirming my identity – for years self employed people have had to give their NI or TR numbers, and European promoters often require an A1/E101 form which asks for similar information. It’s a pain but you just get on with it. As several people pointed out (see Mark Swinton’s succinct comment below the previous post) there are plenty of ways to confirm identity which we’ve all been doing for years. But a passport is specifically to allow you to travel unhindered between countries – to get you out of your country, into another one and back again. It’s basically for use in a foreign country, so to use it internally is to make you a foreigner in your own country. That’s my objection.

I know it’s a small problem compared with the main work of the UKBA, which is policing overseas workers coming into this country, and which it does robustly (to put it politely – Google them). Their basic assumption is that anyone coming in, whether a teacher, student or musician, may be illegal, and with a bizarre kind of equality they apply the same assumption of guilt to UK Citizens. Surely a government department that reckons the entire population is potentially here illegally has lost the plot somewhere along the way.

Some people wondered what would happen at the concert next week if I’m not there. Firstly, let me apologise to David McGuiness and my wonderful fellow musicians. I know they don’t like the situation any more than I do and that they fully support Aldeburgh’s plight. They’ve also been touchingly supportive of my position too. It’s a freewheeling kind of event, and although it will obviously be a bit different if I’m not there, there are plenty of ways of doing it without me. It’ll be a great gig, and if it wasn’t already sold out I’d be urging everyone to go along.


Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

This is a slightly edited version of the original to make it (hopefully) a bit clearer. There’s a response from Aldeburgh in the Comments below.

Imagine the scene: one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world, you turn up at the stage door to rehearse and are met by a border guard who assumes you to be a criminal threatening the state unless you can show him your passport to prove otherwise. No passport, no entry, and presumably the risk of being detained indefinitely.

Kafka,  Orwell or John Le Carré maybe?  Germany before World War II, or somewhere in the Eastern Bloc after it?

Wrong: Aldeburgh today (or rather, next week). No entry for British performers unless you can prove you’re British.

I was booked for a concert on Easter Saturday with Concerto Caledonia, James Bowman and a whole bunch of fabulous musicians, but have had to pull out as I’m not going to show my passport to a concert promoter in my own country. It’s fundamentally wrong.

Aldeburgh Music is a ‘licensed sponsor of the UK Border Agency’. When I first got wind of this my  thoughts were along the lines of  what’s one of the country’s great musical institutions doing in cahoots with something I’d only heard of in connection with cruelty to children and pregnant women and the possible closure of London Met. Then it dawned on me that the UKBA assumes that EVERYONE IN THE COUNTRY is an illegal immigrant unless they can prove otherwise. This is completely mad – who on  earth dreamed up a scheme that assumed a whole country’s citizens to be illegal immigrants?

Towards the end of my time as an academic I was sometimes asked to provide my passport number when visiting other UK universities, and also to get the passport numbers of visiting lecturers at York. I just assumed this to be yet another example of the university not trusting its staff, another layer of pointless bureaucracy. But I now realise that ALL ACADEMICS ARE ASSUMED TO BE ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS unless they can prove otherwise. No wonder HE institutions throughout the land are terrified of losing their ‘highly favoured’ status and going the way of London Met.

We have to wake up. The comparison with totalitarian regimes is not an idle one – it’s the incremental undermining of fundamental freedoms that leads to the total erosion of  everything else. The Kafka and Orwell comparisons are apt too: we seem to have ended the Cold War so that the UK Border Agency can go to war against its own people.

There are things we can do. Academics: don’t go anywhere in the UK where you’re required to produce your passport; post your lecture online – students won’t be disadvantaged and your employer might begin to take this problem seriously. This especially applies to emeritus staff and people of my generation: we really don’t need to go along with this stuff.

Performers: I know musicians have to work, and the system perpetuates itself because we can’t afford to say no. Well, some of us can, and we should. Most concerts have several performers and will still work perfectly well with one missing (like the Aldeburgh gig). Only one person need make the gesture – an empty chair and some explanation to the audience will work wonders in raising consciousness.

Are there any benefits to being a UKBA sponsor? Yes, they get to employ foreign artists without their having to get visas in their own country. All well and good (though it’s a pity those countries don’t offer reciprocal arrangements, as anyone who’s ever had to go through the dreadful US visa process will know). And of course they keep out the undesirable Johnny Foreigner and producing your passport is a small price to pay for that, Daily Mail readers will say. Well it isn’t and I’m not paying it.  A British Citizen should have the right to work in his own country without having to prove he isn’t a criminal. Even the Daily Mail should get that one.

By the way, I’ve finally made it to Twitter: @johnpottermusic