Product has been added to the basket

Passport to Penicuik

Peter Styles* detects an excess of devolutionary zeal at the University of Edinburgh

StylesPicture: Our intrepid E-I-C (left) examines where others fear to tread.

I did believe it would be some time after the referendum on Scottish Devolution (2014) before I had to present a passport, even though - as a Northumbrian hailing from North of the Roman Wall - there may be some long-standing grievances about border raids in both directions. However, a venerable University in the Scottish capital appears to be jumping the gun.

I recently tentatively agreed, as one does in one of those (increasingly frequent) absent-minded moments, to act as external examiner for a PhD candidate. The institution then demanded that I bring my passport, and have the Internal Examiner sign a copy of it - to vouch that I was who I said I was, and that I actually was there in person. This, despite my having been known personally to both examiner and supervisor for over 20 years.


Examining a PhD means reading a lovingly written 75000-ish word thesis on a topic on which someone has spent about four years, and about which you are considered to be the closest thing to a world expert in the near vicinity. You then travel (as cheaply as possible - good old Senior Railcard) to the university, and subject a fairly nervous postgraduate to light toasting before deciding whether they pass first time, will pass after doing a little polishing, or in some rare, sad and emotionally draining circumstances, telling them that it is unlikely ever to pass muster.

For this you earn the princely sum of £100 - from which about £40 goes in tax. As you may guess you don’t do this for the money, but because it is seen, like much in academia, as a mark of academic distinction and a necessary role (and because others may be required to examine your own PhD students!).
I have done this for over 35 years; examined countless theses and undergraduate degrees, from here to Saudi Arabia via Cairo and points south, without ever needing anyone to sign a copy of my passport. Even Saudi Arabia, while wanting to see my passport for the visa, are prepared to accept me as an honest individual before I sit down in the examining chair.


However, as it is not law in the UK even to own a passport, and my NI number conveys all the information that any employer needs, this seems a little high-handed on aforesaid University’s part (who, I may add, not be alone in trying to foist this on unsuspecting examiners, even if not furriners!).

When I declined to do this in my now rather irascible manner, I was told that the UK Border Agency are now insisting on this. Really? As this rule is not universal as yet, this seems disingenuous at best and lily-livered at worst.

I am sure Alex Salmond would find this a very heart-warming example of Caledonia making non-Scots feel well put in our place; but I, for one, will be declining to offer up Her Britannic Majesty’s cherished document for stamping before I can examine a PhD.


* Peter Styles, Editor in Chief of Geoscientist, is Professor Emeritus at Keele University and a former President of the Society.