Sunday 9 February 2020

Stemming the flood of illegal external examiners

On 21st January, the Times Higher Education published a short piece about Professor Eric Barendt, an academic lawyer at UCL, who had been told that he had to submit his passport to another University in order to be acceptable as an external examiner. He thought this was preposterous, and declined to do so. The reaction on Twitter indicated that passport checks were now widespread in British universities, and many academics were unhappy about it 

My sympathies are with Prof Barendt, and I've decided that I too will not agree to be an external examiner if I am required to provide my passport to prove I am eligible. In fact, a few days after this story broke, I was invited to be an external examiner, and agreed only on condition that I did not have to provide my passport. Alas, it looks like this means I won't be examining the thesis.

This may look like petulance: refusal to comply with what is not an burdensome requirement creates difficulties for a blameless candidate and their supervisor. So let me explain why I think it is important.

External examining is a highly skilled, high-stakes, onerous task for which one is paid not much more than the minimum wage. The going rate varies from institution to institution, but in my recent experience you may get around £180 to £240. You have to read and evaluate a thesis that represents 3 years' worth of work (around 40,000-50,000 words in my discipline), visit the candidate's home institution to conduct an oral examination that lasts around 2-3 hours, ensure that any corrections are done to your satisfaction, and write a report with recommendations. Nobody does this for the money. Rather, like so much in academia, the whole system survives by a quid pro quo: you know that when your own students need examining, you'll want to find external examiners for them. With a strong student, examining can have its own intrinsic rewards, but it can also be highly stressful if there are problems with the thesis. So overall, all of the academics involved in this process know that the external examiner is doing a favour for another institution by agreeing to take on this extra job.

When I first did examining, many years ago, arrangements for selecting examiners were pretty informal. Times change, and everything has got more official and bureaucratic. Many institutions now require external examiners to provide proof of their competence to do the job (a CV and/or list of previous candidates examined), and some have guidelines to avoid too much chumminess between supervisor and external examiner (no co-authorships, for example). I can see that these requirements, have a point in preserving the integrity of the examination system.

But the passport check is really the last straw. It's senseless on two counts. First, it implies that academic institutions classify external examiners as employees, even though they are doing a one-off task for which the pay is trivial. Second, as Prof Barendt noted, it means that they don't trust other academic institutions to do proper checks of right to work. Now, it may be that there are some dodgy places where this is the case, but it seems reasonable to assume that Higher Education Institutions recognised by the Office for Students will be compliant with the law on this point. What is weird is that when I protest about the passport check for external examiners, some colleagues say, "But if the institution didn't do these checks, they'd be liable for enormous fines". Well, given that is the case, then surely it's safe to assume that the institution that actually employs the external examiner will have done the checks. I can understand that institutions might want an option of conducting checks in rare cases where there was reason to doubt this was true. It's the mandatory nature of the checks that are otiose in 99% of cases that is so exasperating.

Some years ago, in a different context, I wrote a piece about expansion of research regulation in academic life. Many of the points I made there apply to this situation. Bureaucracy creeps up on us by a series of stealthy small steps, until we suddenly find ourselves engulfed by it. Yes, showing a passport is a trivial matter, but I think that if we don't resist this kind of thing, it will only get worse.

P.S. Eric Barendt has pointed me to a piece he wrote on this topic for the Oxford Magazine (2020, No. 416, pp 8-10). I don't think this publication is available online, so here is just a short quote from it concerning the legal aspects of passport checks - something that has been discussed on Twitter in response to this blogpost.
An employer breaks the law only if it employs an illegal immigrant, not because it fails to conduct passport checks. If it is confident it is employing a UK national (or other person with a right to work in the UK such as an EEA or Swiss national), then it has nothing to worry about. So an automatic request is unnecessary. It reveals what may be termed a culture of ‘over-compliance’ with government policy. Of course, it is a sensible, indeed a vital, step to take, if a university, or indeed any employer, has doubts about the immigration status of anyone it is contemplating employing, but common sense surely suggests it is quite unwarranted when it engages someone whom it ought to trust.
Another issue tackled by Eric's piece is whether it is reasonable for Universities to treat external examiners as employees:
... it is hard to see why an external examiner, particularly of a doctoral thesis, should be treated as an employee of the host university, when an academic reviewer of a book proposal is not regarded as an employee of the publisher which engaged him (or her) to review it.
It has been suggested on Twitter that if we are to be regarded as employees, we should be paid an appropriate wage, and the post should be advertised!  


  1. Is this academic or accounting bureaucy? Universities are now massive financial enterprises and will be subject to money laundering and tax laws. I think that you have to be certain of the identity of the recipient of a payment, otherwise the university has deduct tax and let the examiner reclaim the deduction via their tax return.

  2. Recently I was asked to provide my passport in order to have access to a desk on a visit to a collaborator at the University of Manchester. No compensation involved! I know the university keeps track of whether visitors are UK/EU or outside; mine does too (although I really don't know why). But why on earth wouldn't they accept my word!?
    Thanks for writing this; I 100% agree.

  3. I’ve been fighting this for years...most of the time successfully, though it has obviously got worse. Mainly due to the HMRC IR35 regulations.
    But the HMRC have also complicated the whole issue. They class external examining at undergraduate level as normal employment and the external examiner as an employee - hence the requirement to prove Right to Work. But they class external examining at post-graduate level much more flexibly including self-employment. The situation now is that even if one has a legitimate self-employment status (which could be alongside one’s normal FT or PT employment at an institution) university HR departments refuse to recognise it as they are completely risk-averse, seeing ’ risk’ even though there isn’t any.

    I recently had the usual battle with an HR Dept over a one-off, post-grad validation event. Eventually they accepted my self-employed status and agreed I could be set up as a supplier of services and invoice them against a purchase order. Sorted....I thought....until another email arrived from HR confirming I’d been set up as a supplier but still insisting I prove my right to work by bringing in my passport! (They’ve now backed down).

  4. Does the school pay for the passport if the external does not have one?

    This is bureaucrat run mad.

    1. No.If you take a look at the Times Higher article cited at the top of the blogpost, you will find the case of Prof Michelle Ryan, where a univeristy 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.

    2. Thanks, I missed that link.

      Any idea how many illegal immigrants are eking out a substance living as external examiners? It must be a tough life.


  5. This has been driving me mad for years. One odd aspect is the lack of consistency across the sector. Some universities just ask you to confirm that you have a right to work while others insist on the full passport check. I did a programme review for a university several years ago which paid a bit more than a PhD exam (though not much more) and they insisted on enrolling me as a member of staff, including joining their local pension scheme. I now get an annual statement of benefits - pennies a month if I make it to statutory retirement age.

    But there's a psychological reason to object too - at least for universities that insist on checking your face against your passport photo. The literature shows that viewers just can't do that accurately. Even passport officers with years of experience can't do it reliably. (NB - I've had even less success with this argument than with the moral outrage route.)

  6. Even battier - this occurs within the collegiate university of Oxford. I undertook tutorials for undergraduate students at a number of colleges. But if you are not a tutorial fellow at one college (I was a Professor formally without college teaching requirements) several insisted on seeing my passport (in at least one case physically, not just on-line, no doubt to make sure that I didn't have a bearded Iranian face when I appeared in the flesh), even though my University department had confirmed my eligibility for UK employment and was happy to tell the colleges so.

  7. Thanks for raising this issue. I know this post is a year old but Brexit is only going to make this worse. I am currently trying to arrange a UK PhD examination and the nomination form tells me that as of 1st Jan 2021 that the external needs to have a "UK passport", no mention of legal residents with working rights. Not only does this make no sense at all but presumably it is even illegal?

    Meanwhile, I have conducted PhD examinations for universities abroad before and was never asked for anything like this. So this is very much a UK-specific problem...