This is the full and original text of my article published on February 15th 2018 in Times Higher Education.
In January of 2017 a colleague and I travelled to Canada to work with a saxophone quartet and give a performance in the beautiful Church of the Gesù, Montreal. At passport control both of us stated our reason for travel and, as usual, we were greeted and allowed to pass without the need for visas or other formalities; not even a carefully rehearsed question designed to trick us into admitting that we were, in fact, wanted criminals.
Fast forward a couple of months and I invite a Canadian national to the University of Edinburgh to give a short talk for a small fee. Enter the behemoth of a gatekeeper that the UK Border Agency (UKBA) has become.
I’m told the rules to get into the UK for a little paid work have been considerably relaxed over the past couple of years. However, in order to give a one-hour talk bypassing the points-based system you’d normally have to grapple with, our colleague was faced with a considerable administrative challenge, perhaps even a requirement to present a “Permitted Paid Engagement visa”. This costs £87. Turnaround time?: “You should get a decision on your visa within 3 weeks.” What do you need? “Proof that you can support yourself”; “details of where you intend to stay”; “proof that the paid engagement relates to your expertise”; “a certified translation of any documents that aren’t in English or Welsh”. If you’re an artist or sportsperson? “You must provide extra documents…e.g. publications, publicity material, proof of awards, media coverage and reviews, proof of recent performances.” Notice that the burden of proof lies on the individual seeking entry to the kingdom, which is a little like trying to prove your innocence in a court of law rather than the state having to prove your guilt.
Faced with this bureaucratic minefield our North American friend turned sharp left at Calais. I can hardly blame him. A few years ago I invited a Turkish pianist to play a concert in Edinburgh. She was living in the US at the time and, to her credit, went through the whole rigmarole of travelling for hours to the nearest biometric screening station in order to comply with UK immigration procedures. After waiting eight weeks she cancelled the application as she could no longer be without her passport. She was told it can take up to twelve weeks to get it back.
How are internationally active artists supposed to function within such a system? The answer is that some simply refuse. A while after this experience another truly astounding musician that Edinburgh should have had the pleasure of witnessing on stage didn’t even bother to start the process: he had neither the time nor the inclination to jump through the barbed hoops.
These are the experiences of just one individual UK academic inviting people of extraordinary merit to enrich our public institutions for a paltry fee. I know I’m not alone though. An Edinburgh colleague just informed me that he too had to cancel a seminar recently because their speaker was denied a visa. In this case it was an Indian national who had received his PhD from Edinburgh just a few years ago. Of course exchange still happens, but it’s now much harder than it was or, some might argue (myself included), harder than it needs to be. This partially informed my decision to leave the UK and move to an academic job in Germany.
Now, my previous post on the subject of leaving UK academia picked up a lot of unexpected attention and a tiny amount of criticism along the lines of “the grass is always greener”. Well, I’m on the other side of the fence now and I can report that it is indeed greener over here, on my patch at least.
I’m teaching at an Arts University that inherently has smaller class sizes and more teaching than traditional universities, but I’m also enjoying much, much less administration: no demands to justify what I’m doing and how I’m doing it; no spying on our students for the UKBA; and no endless meetings aimed at, for example, meddling with my teaching curricula. Germany has academic freedom written into the constitution. This means that the content and teaching methods used by a lecturer are both their choice and sole responsibility. Compare that to a UK politician’s recent attempt to requisition lecturers’ materials on Brexit.
My experience in German academia has so far only been marred by the intense embarrassment of the UKBA’s rejection of a student’s visa application to make a short trip to London. Misagh Azimi is an Iranian passport holder who has been living, working, and studying in Germany for six years. He was invited by Greenwich University to attend a colloquium and present his audiovisual works. Despite having a return ticket and accommodation already paid for and documented, his application was rejected on the grounds that the UKBA was neither satisfied with his intentions for traveling nor that he would be able to pay for his stay. His needs would extend to some fish and chips perhaps. London prices notwithstanding, this would hardly break the bank.
The reaction of my German colleagues was perplexed astonishment and outrage. For comparison, here are the experiences of several people working in cultural fields within Germany:
Joachim Heintz teaches composition in Hannover. He reports that over the fifteen years he has been working in close collaboration with artists in and specifically from Iran it has become more difficult to obtain appointments at the German Embassy of Tehran but that he has never experienced an Iranian artist being refused entry to Germany. In fact the Culture Department of the German Embassy helps to expedite the whole process, much to its credit.
Thomas Neuhaus, from the Folkwang University, has never experienced or even heard of a visa application problem in the many years that he has been inviting artists to Germany from countries outside of the EU.
Florian Walter, who organises festivals in Essen and Belgium also reports no difficulties when inviting artists from a variety of non-EU countries, as long as they are able to provide some tax information.
Merja Dworczak, from the Philharmonie Essen, informs me that the only country which presents some problems is Russia, but even there it is possible, with some ingenuity, to find a solution.
Merja was involved in the organisation of the extensive NOW! festival which took place in Essen recently. This included a headline concert involving several Iranian musicians invited to perform, amongst other pieces, a new work by Iranian composer Bijan Tavili. Bijan studied in Germany and now has several teaching positions here. He spoke to me of the warm welcome he received in Germany upon his arrival and how he was treated with nothing but respect and dignity by the authorities when dealing with his immigration status over the years.
The UK used to treat its (potential) guests better. To my great sadness and shame, my country is very quickly becoming more and more closed, paranoid, and dismissive in its official interactions with citizens from non-EU countries. It will be the UK’s loss if it continues on this path of insularity. To put it in a manner politicians should understand, academic and cultural exchange are the bedrock of democratic societies keen to further their own interests by engaging with the expertise of their neighbours both near and far. Allowing foreigners to enter the UK is not an act of charity or benevolence, it is an act which is demonstrably beneficial to UK citizens from all walks of life. To think and act otherwise is to cut off vital links to spite the cultural and economic spark of the nation.
I’ll end with a statement by Misagh Azimi himself, six weeks after being refused a visa. It is important to give him a voice here:
“The visa refusal still haunts me. It’s not about being able to go to London or not. It’s about challenging my individual rights as a human being; it’s about challenging the very values I hold dear; and also realising that I don’t have the chance to change minds and use my voice to make a difference just because I was born in the wrong country. The whole discussion about human rights and how people are treated in my country is fine, but then doing this to an artist who wants to exchange his thoughts? Well, that is the very definition of hypocrisy.”