The established church

One of the most seemingly archaic features of modern Britain — and the one that outsiders may be least prepared for — is the “established church”.  Formal secularism takes many forms, in the US, Canada, France, Turkey; but one does get used to thinking of religion as no proper business of the state. Not in the UK, where the Queen is Defender of the Faith, and the Prime Minister had to wait until he had left office before he could comfortably change his religious affiliation. The highest position in society that anyone can aspire to who does not happen to be the first-born of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha — I mean, the House of Windsor — is to marry the first-born of this famous princely family, and a Catholic maiden, however virginal, may not aspire to this august status. (My impression is that current law currently restricts the spousal position to members of one sex as well, and the constitutional status of a same-sex civil partner of the heir to the throne is, so far as I can tell, still unresolved.) Apparently Jews, Muslims, and Wiccans are not formally excluded, though the tabloid press might raise a fuss if the next queen hosted witches’ sabbaths on a regular basis at Buckingham Palace. Balmoral might be another matter…

Punch cartoon: Shows the struggle between Anglicans and Dissenters for control over education, while the needs of the children are ignored.

The most practical consequence of this establishment is that a large fraction of the state-funded schools (called “maintained schools”) are actually subsidiaries of the Church of England. The state provides most of the money, and the church gets impressionable children to proselytise at will. In some parts of the country these schools are selective and people get themselves and/or their children baptised to get them in; in Oxford, the C of E snapped up most of the good school sites long ago, and we’d have to travel far from home to find a non-church primary school. Not that that would do any good, given that daily Christian worship is required by law in all state schools. (To be precise, the communal worship must be “mainly of a broadly Christian character”, “which accord a special status to Jesus Christ”) There are literally no secular state-funded schools in the UK. You can worship whatever you want, as long as you do it in school, rather than in, say, a church or other such inappropriate institution.

Oxford admissions

One of the genuinely unique features of Oxbridge is the admissions procedure. To judge by the news reporting, there is no issue in education that interests the British as much as admission to the “Ancient Universities”. The only countries with comparable concerns (that I am aware of) are the US, France, and Japan. I know almost nothing about Japanese university admissions. France, famously, has a parallel system of Grandes Écoles of fairly modern (mostly post-Revolution) vintage, while the traditional universities are completely unselective in admissions, though of course some courses ruthlessly prune students through mid-course exams. The Grandes Écoles are a broad pallette of fairly small and specialised institutions, relying on special preparatory classes and rigid admissions exams. While the ENS in Paris as the primus inter pares for academic subjects, the specialisation means that aspiring business or political or civil-engineering leaders have their own, equally exclusive institutions.

An American trying to understand the significance of Oxbridge admissions should imagine the frenzy over Ivy League and comparable universities, reduced to two elite universities, of which students are permitted to apply to only one. For all the frenzy in the US over getting children into Harvard, it is well understood that there are fine gradations of quality and prestige, and at least half a dozen institutions whose diplomas will do you exactly as much good in climbing the socioeconomic ladder, as well as several dozen more that will count you among the elite.

The UK is blessed with a large number of truly excellent universities, world-class in research and truly dedicated to teaching their students. But why should anyone care how brilliant your instructors were (unless you are one of the small minority who go on to a research career, and even then, only if the brilliant instructor has worked closely enough with you to be able to make a meaningful recommendation, and that brilliant instructor is one of that small subset who are not only brilliant themselves, but capable and willing to recognise brilliance in others)? University admissions in a stratified educational system is as much about exclusion as education. The “return” that universities provide to most of their undergraduates, from the coarse economic perspective, is largely conditioned on exclusivity. It’s rather like a hyper-expensive resort that provides reasonable comfort, but offers above all the opportunity to be secluded with other phenomenally wealthy vacationers. The price becomes part of the service, rather than being a trade-off. Universities don’t exclude by wealth primarily (particularly not in the UK), but by academic performance. There is a widespread perception that a certain amount of academic brilliance is the right qualification for many of the most desireable jobs in the modern economy, enough to make a place among the academic elite seem immensely desireable. Bankers pay £20,000 a year or more to send their children to “independent schools” (or “public schools”), the primary measure of whose success (it would be unfair to say it is their overriding educational goal) is the number of students they place in Oxford and Cambridge.

The universities could probably do more to exclude the striving sons and daughters of the haute-bourgeois, in favour of the enthusiastic poor or not-so-poor scholars, but then society at large would stop caring about us, and would stop supporting us in the style to which we have become accustomed. On the other hand, if the moneyed classes were too  It’s a delicate balance, which recurs in many aspects of the university. For instance, there is considerable pressure to put business people onto boards of universities, to align the universities more closely with business interests. But of course, if the business community knew how to achieve their interests in selection, training, and research, they wouldn’t be mucking about with universities at all. They want to bend the universities more to their interests, but too much capitalist gleichschaltung leaves universities like the internal research departments that they already have too much of. Academics are a bit like yeast, going about our own metabolic processes, whose effluvium (in this case intellectually sharp employees, leaders, and future captains of industry — no offense intended) turns out to be of great value to others, for reasons that we tiny yeast cells can no more than dimly recognise, while we are mainly striving to reproduce ourselves (in the academic sense, by seducing the rare brilliant student into a life of cogitation). As a machine for selecting and training the upper class, universities seem obviously inefficient, since they are intentionally pursuing quite different goals. Like the brewer’s yeast, though, academics work cheap (by the standards of private industry); furthermore, the system is entrenched and well tested, and the rigour with which academics enforce intellectual standards and is far enough superior (or, at least, complementary) to the soft-soap appraisals of business and government to compensate for the frequent disjunctions and not infrequent contradictions between them. Even if universities were supposed to serve no other purposes than those of business, for business leaders to streamline the university in their own image would be like trying to augment honey production by steam-cleaning the beehive.

On what basis are some individuals judged “worthy” of an Oxford education? The obvious answer is, those who are most talented, and have the most potential to learn and achieve notable scholarship, in their chosen fields. But why? There is some feeling that the brightest students will make the best use of an excellent education. And yet, this is far from the usual principles for allocating scarce resources. We do not insist that the finest automobiles go to the best drivers, nor do we insist on providing top-notch kitchen utensils to good chefs. (There is some effort to match exceptional music instruments to exceptional musicians, though.) When the market solution is rejected, it is typically for egalitarian reasons. But on an egalitarian basis, one might argue for providing the best post-secondary education to the most ignorant students, to balance things out. For an alternative justification, we might jump to the argument that the education at an elite university differs not in quality but in kind. This is especially true in the UK, where Oxford and Cambridge rely largely on the tutorial system. By leaving students very much to their own devices, but providing close contact and frequent interaction with leading senior scholars, this puts a premium on students’ ability to organise and motivate their studies, and to ask probing questions. For someone incapable of this (or simply uninterested), a place at Oxford would not be a gift. Then there is the problem of competition and mutual assistance among fellow students: Clearly students all benefit from a certain amount of stratification by ability, simply to allow lectures to be targetted at a common pace.

Oxbridge discrimination, elite schools, and the Sutton Trust report

The public is clearly of two minds. It is opposed to “elitism” on principle, but wants to be respected in the world for its elites. There seems to be less hostility than in the US toward pointy-headed academics, but they want class distinctions to be erased in the allocation of resources. As long as genius blows whereThe fact that well-heeled parents are buying not only a posh accent with their school fees, but sharper minds, genuinely better prepared for a top university, cuts uncomfortably across these lines. To put it bluntly, while everyone could benefit from an Oxford degree, not everyone would benefit from an Oxford education. This discrepancy is what drives the headlines, though, since one feels that the valuable Oxford degrees, being partly funded by the taxpayers, should be spread around more broadly. In particular, there is the sense, expressed in articles such as this one, that  This article describes the Sutton Trust report, which found that out of about 3700 schools in the UK, there are 100 — 78 of them private — which provides Oxbridge with about 1/3 of their matriculants. What does that mean? It sounds to many like an indictment of the fairness of the admissions process. Some schools are receiving more than their “fair share” of Oxbridge places. Or are they? In principle, this pattern could be explained if the 100 top schools had twenty times as many pupils as the rest, on average. Of course, they do not, but the idea does not seem so absurd when we replace “pupils” by “highly motivated pupils with highly motivated families”. Wealth is a factor, that is, but so is the importance placed upon education. Furthermore, as long as there is a perception that elite schools are the necessary springboard to Oxbridge, those families who yearn for Oxbridge will, if at all possible, scrape together the money to send their little ones to an independent school. The less motivated — perhaps because they do not care about education, perhaps because they find Oxbridge pretensions insufferable — will be less well prepared for Oxbridge (though perhaps better prepared for something else), and may not even apply. Indeed, if we look at application statistics, we see that the state school pupils are drastically underrepresented among the Oxford applicants as well. Only 57.5% of Oxford applicants in 2005-7 came from state schools. Those who did apply did fairly well, as we see that 53.2% of the places went to applicants from state schools. (Worcester received only 46.4% of its applications from state schools, but 48.7% of those accepted were from this group.)

Even if we accepted the soundness of the statistical inference — some schools are unfairly (or, at least, unreasonably) advantaged in placing their graduates in elite universities — the logical conclusion is being twisted to a political agenda. Consider that we believe ourselves to have strong empirical evidence for the proposition:
1) Graduates of elite universities are more likely to get good jobs and be economically successful in their lives.
The socially conscious concludes that therefore
2) We need to widen access to this important Oxbridge benefit.
We are then confronted with strong empirical evidence for the proposition:
3) Graduates of elite schools are more likely to be admitted to elite universities, and be economically successful in their lives.
The same pattern of reasoning then would lead us to
4) We need to widen access to this important elite school benefit.
One might widen access by helping more children from a variety of backgrounds to be able to afford to attend the best schools. Or, one might widen access by improving the education provided in the state schools, copying the methods and the funding levels of the independent schools. But no, that is not feasible. You see, that would demand higher taxes, and the British public does not believe in being taxed the way other Europeans are. But then, it is hard to see why, if they believe that the wealthy should be allowed by right to keep the money they earn, they are surprised when the wealthy want to use the money to buy something valuable, like a good education. And yet, this is not the conclusion drawn by some newspaper columnists and government ministers. (with some notable exceptions such as this journalist and this anodyne ministerial comment)

The report clouds the issue by multiplying the meaningless statistics: Quite promininent is the information that “The proportion of university entrants going to Oxbridge from the top performing 30 independent schools was nearly twice that of the top performing 30 grammar schools — despite having very similar average A-level scores.” That sounds rather damning, unless you know that  Oxford is choosing only from the students who have the maximum possible score of three A grades in their A-level exams. These comprise fully 10% of all school leavers, while less than 1% will be able to find a place at Oxford or Cambridge. Thus, comparing average A-level grades would not be expected necessarily to have much relevance in predicting Oxbridge acceptance rates. It is rather as though one were to infer invidious discrimination from observing that the Royal Philharmonic was far more likely to hire graduates of a leading conservatory than university graduates in music pedagogy, despite the fact that both groups on average had learned to play the same number of scales.

While the UK gives students only one shot at the “elite”, at the very least the message of rejection is somewhat limited by the admissions criteria. Whereas UK universities seek out the students most capable for the particular course of study that they aspire to study, US universities nourish the fiction that they evaluate the whole person. So when Harvard or Yale or Stanford rejects you, it is not just your academic qualifications that they are judging inadequate. It is your life.

My own experience as a student going through the US university admissions mill certainly colours my experience. Being quite naive about the process, I applied only to four universities: Harvard, MIT, Yale, and Johns Hopkins (the last only because my brother was there). I had admissions interviews at the first two, and was accepted at the last two. As someone who has gone on to be a quite competent research mathematician, I find the rejection by MIT back then particularly telling. I was a top student in high school, winning a fair share of local and national prizes in mathematics. I have gone on to become a fairly successful research mathematician. And yet I was rejected by MIT, which is focused almost entirely on natural sciences, and accepted by Yale, with much broader interests and a football team to squeeze in. Why? I can only guess that, as a shy and introverted, math-obsessed and relatively young school pupil, I did not perform very well in an interview that had almost no academic content.

Discrimination, Legacies, and Development Cases

US universities are rather infamous for the many different ways they discriminate for or against certain applicants. The most notorious are the legacies — preference for childre, or occasionally other relatives, of alumni — and the “development cases”, a euphemism for children of the great and the good, whose patronage may be expected. For an excellent discussion of the open scandals of US university admissions, see Daniel Golden’s The Price of Admission. Oxford explicitly rejects the principle of considering family connections as a factor in admissions.

I was interested to notice that even stuffy, old, rich Trinity College rejected Euan Blair, son of the Prime Minister, despite the fact that the warden (head of the college) is himself a notoriously wealthy and nonacademic alumnus of the college, and apparently a friend of the Blair family. Given the public attention that his case received, it’s easy to suppose that they were making a show of scrupulousness in admissions, but even then, it is notable that they felt it to be important to show that they would not play favourites with the son of a prime minister. Certainly US universities feel no compunctions about competing for the children of the wealthy, famous, and powerful, vaulting them ahead of more conventionally qualified applicants. Blair would hardly have been a disastrous student here: He did receive a conditional acceptance, but failed to make the required A-level grades — apparently his school predicted two A’s and a B, and he in fact received a C in French — and went on to study ancient history successfully at Bristol. (It is hardly a unique case. A classics tutor in Worcester told me of having rejected the son of a wealthy alumnus who they had ranked sixth among their applicants, when there were only five places. )

Of course, this is an often overlooked reason to be worried about the wealth-differential between colleges

Mathematics admissions at Worcester College

I presume that mathematics admissions are similar in most of the colleges, although the mechanics surely differ between those colleges with large numbers of applicants, and those with only a few. For some years now Worcester College has received the largest number of applications for mathematics and connected subjects, and in fact, the largest number of applications overall. Consequently, we had to interview from early morning to late evening on two consecutive days. Each applicant was interviewed twice, once on a sheet of questions that they had already seen, once on unseen questions. As I mentioned above, the school grades were all at the maximum. They had taken a mathematics exam specifically for Oxford admission, which has some influence on decisions.

In the end, I was quite impressed with how much one could see in a half-hour interview to distinguish the student with a superficial test-taking expertise from the student with the seeds of real mathematical vision and sharp problem-solving intelligence. At the same time, there are obvious dangers. The interview is extremely convincing, because it is something you have seen with your own eyes, and it does tend to wipe out all other considerations — particularly since, as I have remarked, the school system fails to provide the exceptional pupils with very many possibilities to differentiate themselves from the mass of merely adequate contemporaries. And while the interviews seem to be a very good tool for finding the prospective students likely to thrive in the tutorial system, it is hard to escape the suspicion that there are the rare young people whose minds are profound but not necessarily quick, who would benefit greatly from this university, and contribute greatly as well, who never manage to show their true mettle in a half-hour interview. We give two interviews, and then a third if there is disagreement, but it’s clear that a real genius might be missed.

On the other hand, I think that the interviews (at least as applied in mathematics) are well crafted to avoid the obvious inequities that concern many people. In discussions of admissions I never heard anyone suggest any criterion for admission other than mathematical ability, or rather, mathematical potential. Peripheral factors — in particular, quality of a candidate’s school, or national origin and language difficulties — were discussed only to the extent that they would help in translating the ability shown in the interview into potential. The principle, of course, is that the seed that sprouted well on stony ground has more potential than the seed that has already shown what it can do in rich loam. A candidate who seemed exceptionally nervous, or who was struggling a bit with conversational English, might deserve another look if his or her performance at the interview seemed otherwise not quite at the level of another without these handicaps. In the end, though, as sedulous as we tried to be in adjusting our expectations for the obvious distortions of personality and background, there is no question that a bright young person would be best served by the training of an excellent school, which would allow his or her ability to be directly demonstrated in the interview, rather than relying on the hit or miss possibility of some interviewer descrying great potential as through a glass darkly.

It might seem that students should calculate to apply to the less popular colleges, to compete against a weaker field. The advantage to be gained from such a strategy is marginal, though, and it could be counterproductive. There is a pretty thorough system for making sure that colleges with too many excellent applicants pass some on to the colleges with too few. My own impression is that there were a few rejected applicants, but not a large number, who probably ought to have found a place somewhere in the university had resources been unlimited.

Data and security

Security in the UK

Crime statistics in the UK are a mixed lot. On the one hand, the overall levels of crime victimisation are fairly similar to those in the US, Canada, and Western Europe, a bit on the high end overall. Homicide rates, on the other hand, despite recent well-publicised drops in the US, are still drastically lower (by a factor of about 3) in the UK and most of Western Europe (and Canada). Presumably this is attributable, at least in part, to the smaller number of guns. Gun murders in the UK are the lowest in the world, as a proportion of population, about a factor of 20 lower than in the US. (This does not directly contradict the “only outlaws will have guns” NRA rhetoric, if we generalise from a recent report in the NY Times, explaining that the classic random-mugging-murder is now extremely rare in New York, leaving mainly revenge killings and turf wars between drug gangs, and kinds of intimate crimes that are the meat of crime fiction. Gun bans, presumbly, have relatively little impact on the former — and the RMMs — but quite a lot on the jealous spouse and Double Indemnity types of crimes.)

While getting tough on lawbreakers, the hapless government of Gordon Brown is now having to answer for its own role in aiding and abetting identity theft. Supposedly a “junior official” of Customs and Revenue copied the entire database of families receiving the state Child Benefit (7.5 million families, comprising about 25 million individuals), including names, addresses onto compact disks, and sent them by unrecorded internal post to the National Audit Office. They did not turn up at the other end. As they say, it’s an ill will indeed that blows no good. Until this blunder sprawled over all the newspaper headlines, I had no idea that there was a Child Benefit, a monthly payment to parents (or anyone else raising a child) worth about £80 a month for families with one child. (It’s funny that we got caught out on this, because we were irked to discover, shortly before we left Canada, that we’d missed out on applying for a similar benefit there. For some reason governments don’t go out of their way to inform new immigrants of these things.) Anyone moving to the UK should be aware of this: official information is available here. My understanding, though, is that it’s generally only available for Europeans (which I’m not, but the rest of the family are).

If you wanted to contrive a damaging political scandal, without anyone really getting hurt, it would be hard to better this one. All the ingredients are there: Incompetence, money, long-term uncertainty, vast number of potential victims, new technology (making everyone particularly uneasy), and, most important, children. Furthermore, there are reports that

  1. The Audit Office requested an anonymised version of the database, but C&R refused, claiming it would be too costly. (Oops.)
  2. C&R suggested the auditors come visit them to peek at the database. Too much trouble, they said. (Oops again.)

Why are they e-mailing CDs anyway? Anyone with even a tiny bit of technological literacy could have used SSH to transfer the files over the Internet, and saved them the price of a stamp.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alastair Darling (I can’t escape the feeling that there are names you meet at the top levels in politics here that would simply provoke too many giggles in the US or Canada) whose head might be expected to roll, explained that it really wasn’t his fault. In an inversion of the Eichmann defense, he explained that he just makes the rules. “There are rules that mean you can’t download this info and stick it in the post… In asking ourselves what has gone wrong here the rules appear to have been breached with catastrophic results.” Sounds reasonable. It’s not his fault if someone doesn’t follow the rules. This reminds me a bit of the reaction of the day-care teacher in Berkeley who instructed me, after my then two-year-old daughter ran out of the school unnoticed (fortunately I was still right outside the building when she came out), “You need to tell her that she’s not allowed to do that.” She did not return to that daycare centre. Yes, the “junior official” ought not to have flouted the rules; but it should not be a matter of rules. The junior official should not have access to an extremely sensitive database, that he can download onto two CDs and send throught the mail. Once he can do that, he might just as well copy the database onto two other CDs and sell them to criminals. Who is to say that another junior official did not do that?

Of course, Mr Darling could reasonably protest that he only just took over the ministry a few months ago. The blame must really fall to his predecessor in the office, who put the database system into place over the past year. It’s a hard argument to make, though, since his predecessor is now the prime minister.

Transportation in and around Oxford

Bicycling in Oxford

Oxford has the reputation of being the UK bicyclist’s utopia, and the Oxford City Council has the reputation of being extremely hostile to automobiles. One can see where that impression might come from, but it is sobering to note that the end effect is hardly different from that seen in communities where the ostensible priorities are reversed. Some believe that there is a secret transportation plan, carefully laid out in 1968, aiming to intensify the contradictions in the transportation dialectic  Be that as it may, for present generations bicycling through the city centre is difficult and dangerous at most times of day or night. There are bicycle paths that cross over automobile lanes, paths that run for 100m beside a busy road and then simply stop, and no lack of automobilists for whom passing a bicycle has a pavlovian urgency, even when the bicyclist has signalled a turn, even when the car itself is just about to brake to turn off the road. Outside the city centre, there are some very useful bicycle paths, some fairly elaborate. And on a larger scale there is the UK national cycle network, now over 10,000 miles in length, which we have yet to explore.

Continue reading “Transportation in and around Oxford”

Arriving in Oxford

We’ve been here a few days. So far, everything has gone far more smoothly than I could have anticipated.

Weather: It’s always sunny in Britain

I’ve spent a total of about three weeks in England, and about six weeks in Scotland. While there was a bit of misty rain in the Hebrides, and occasional overcast, but nearly all of that time has been bright, warm, sunny weather. I have heard that it is sometimes otherwise, but I believe it is wisest to trust my own experience, and thus to expect that the weather will always be bright, warm, and sunny.

Travel

Two adults and one five-year-old took a seven-legged trip (see below) without losing any of our 13 pieces of luggage or our sanity. Actually, after days of preparation and much missed sleep, we slept much of the time on the plane and bus. This was not made easy by our Canadian budget airline, Zoom Airlines, whose commitment to cost-savings left me with a non-reclining seat (not that the recliners were actually recognisable to the naked eye), and whose devotion to cramming as many seats as possible into the cabin led to bathroom queues more reminiscent of stadium rock-concerts (and even flight attendants fighting with small children over priority for the facilities. We chose Zoom for its peculiar policy of selling one-way tickets. We had not thought very carefully about their meagre luggage allowance of 30 kg per person, which we exceeded by at least a third.
We thought we were headedtravel diagram for a stiff fine when the grim-faced company apparatchik started weighing every bag carefully and toting up the results, and then turned to what I thought was a well-camouflaged small carry-on bag that was actually stuffed with personal papers and diaries that absolutely could not be checked in, and discovered that it nearly tripled the 5 kg carry-on limit. But in the end, whether she was worn down by my insistent questioning.(Is that a 5kg per item limit or 15 kg for the three of us? What exactly are the limits on a “personal item”?) and time-consuming repacking of bags, and the sheer variegated menagerie of luggage that we were presenting, or whether none of this was meant very seriously in the first place, she then just let it all through with no mention of fine or fee.

On arriving in Oxford (by bus), we were fortunate to obtain from the Worcester College porter the services of a very large luggage cart, to transport our 13 pieces of luggage from Gloucester Green to our home, about a 10 minute walk.
It will be interesting to see how the train system serves us on a more regular basis. Julia will be commuting to work in Coventry, about 45 minutes from Oxford, with train service once an hour. The prices are quite high: For less than the price of a year travelling second-class on this route, you could get a year of first-class travel on the entire German rail network. Another strange thing: It is cheaper to buy two tickets, Oxford-Banbury and Banbury-Coventry, than the single ticket Oxford-Coventry, despite the fact that it is a single train, operated by a single company. And everyone tells us that the rail service grinds to a halt as soon as there is a dusting of snow on the tracks, or even a surfeit of autumn leaves. We shall see.

KIF_5147

School

in Kingston, I was somewhat uneasy to discover that there is very little by way of alternative schools in Oxford. Waldorf education is not very extensively established in the UK, as private schools in the UK (called “public schools”, as everyone knows, except that in practice many people do call them “private”, if not “independent” schools, perhaps for my benefit) seem to be very much about honing the children to a finer competitive edge. My general prejudice about the UK told me that the British had drunk deeply of the standardised testing Kool-Aid, that they were competitive and obsessed with “academic” achievement. The fact that “real school” starts at age 5 made the transition all the more frightening. I was made still more uneasy when I discovered that a significant portion of the state schools (technically called “maintained schools”), including our neighbourhood St. Barnabas Primary School, are operated at least in part by the Church of England.

I can’t say now how the education system matches up over all to my prejudice, but the St. Barnabas school seems now to be a real treasure. The headmistress and the teachers I’ve met seem competent and caring, and other local residents criticise the school for its lack of academic intensity and kindergarten-like atmosphere of the Level 1 class (Chaya’s), which from my point of view is a very positive sign. It is a highly multicultural school, as its catchment area pulls in a large number of Oxford University visitors. Actual variety among the students is a more reliable guarantee against proselytization or exclusion than any formal policy of supporting diversity. There is at least one other Jewish child in Chaya’s class, and a child fresh off the boat from Germany who doesn’t speak any English (a good opportunity for Chaya to play translator). That outweighs the crucifix in the gymnasium…

Banking

It seems bizarre that this should be a major topic, but with all the globalisation of capital and banking, access to bank accounts and credit remains a small but significant impediment to the free movement of people, which is the human side of “labour-market flexibility”. In two years in Canada we never managed to get a credit card. This isn’t just about credit, of course, but about being able to do any commerce by telephone or internet. (It baffles me that credit card companies are still the primary mode of online payment, taking a couple of percent off the vast quantities of money sluicing through the Internet.) We started with Scotia Bank, which lured us into opening an account with the promise of a “Welcome to Canada” credit card. The next day, when we returned to complete the credit card application, we were informed that “Welcome to Canada” is only for permanent residents. (Permanent residency in Canada takes several years, because of the overburdened bureaucracy.) The university tried (somewhat desultorily) to help, arranging a special application with CIBC for Queen’s University employees. Somehow, though, despite several (very positive) telephone conversations with representatives of the company, they seemed to keep losing my application, and indeed any record of my ever having applied. After that went on for several months I realised that they really were not interested in doing business with us. I don’t know if it was xenophobia, rigidity, or something else. It surprises me that banks, willing to extend credit cards right after a bankruptcy, would consider two university professors to be such a high risk that they would not offer credit cards under any conditions, simply because they are new immigrants. Of course, this is just one of many things that confuses me about modern credit. For instance, a person who has always lived within his means is considered a high credit risk, as compared with the person perpetually in debt, but managing to scrape up the payments. One wonders if the banks truly believe that credit is fundamentally different from the rest of a person finances? Are they unaware of the simple schemes — sometimes promoted by the banks themselves — by which people effectively lend money to themselves, then pay it back, and it shows up as positive credit on their reports. Not to mention the fact that anyone who knows a merchant with access to the credit-report databases can add positive information about herself.

Here in the UK we had a different problem. I went first to Barclay’s, where I was told first that they could not open a bank account for me without proof of address which, they insisted, by the 1993 money-laundering law, could only be a UK driving license, voter registration or a utility bill. This was a problem, since I don’t drive, I can’t vote, and we won’t be getting our first utility bill for three months. Furthermore, because I had only recently moved, they also would need a utility bill from my old address. (My Ontario health card, a government issued identity card with photo and address printed on it, was insufficient. It is not, after all, a utility bill.) They did slip me a sheet of paper with super-special information for Oxford University employees. They can have their department contact the university treasurer who will contact the bank who will set up an appointment at a more secluded branch of the bank, and the person at that branch is authorised to accept the treasurer’s letter as proof of address. I took the information, but went on to the next bank down the street, NatWest. My assumption that Barclay’s was simply being peculiar turned out to be unfounded.  NatWest had no special arrangement with the university, and the only thing they could suggest was that perhaps my bank in Canada could send a statement with my new address. What would that prove? I asked. They only have this address because I gave it to them. It’s not as though the bank has any independent evidence of my true address. Yes, said the banker, but the bank is then vouching for your identity. (But the problem wasn’t about confirming my identity. It was my address.) And the utility bills that I could fake in five minutes on the computer? Well, she said, we could call the utility company to confirm the information.

But do they? Has British Gas set itself up with a full-time staff devoted to confirming background checks on every household in the UK? And if they have, why don’t they do these checks directly, rather than indirectly by way of these utility bills and bank statements? I suspect that the information is rarely, if ever, checked, but that they content themselves with the possibility that it could be checked. Why would the bank rather have an easily falsifiable utility bill as proof of address, rather than a letter signed by a senior official at Worcester College, who is actually providing me with the accommodations, and who could be personally contacted for verification? This is typical of the kinds of compromises that go into avoiding an honest political debate — in this case, about address registration and national identity cards. These systems work well in Germany and the Netherlands, but Anglo-Americans view them as inimical to personal liberty. But then, along comes money-laundering and terrorism, and something needs to be done, so they latch onto something informally in place which has the appearance of being voluntary: Driver’s licenses in the US and Canada, utility bills in the UK. The Departments of Motor Vehicles in the US are hijacked to serve as de facto registration authorities, without any clear plan: My non-driver identification in California was issued without a check on any of the information included on it, except my name and birthdate. Then people are shocked when terrorists are able to obtain illegitimate licenses from West Virginia. So they introduce the Real ID Act, leaving identification still in the hands of state DMVs, but imposing national standards. The voluntary nature of these identity cards is a sham, as I discovered fifteen years ago, when I spent several weeks hiking along back roads in New England. I was repeatedly stopped by police who wanted to see a driver’s license, and threatened to arrest me if I did not identify myself properly.)

Then, I discovered Lloyd’s TBS. It was a tip from another American I met. They did not ask for any proof of address. They said they don’t need to, because mine is a “private address”. Very odd. You would think that if they are trying to prevent terrorism by checking people’s addresses, you would not want to allow the customer (aka potential terrorist) to tell you that this is unnecessary. And it is very strange that one bank has such a different take on the legal requirements to the others. Still, I am happy to accept this back door. And once you have your foot in, there are no problems, since I now have plenty of bank statements with my address on them.

University

I am a lecturer for the department of statistics of the University of Oxford, and a tutor in statistics for Worcester College. How these things fit together I don’t yet really know. The university pays most of my salary, but most of my defined duties are for the college. Lectures are given under the auspices of the university, and are not compulsory, though I am told that nearly all students do attend lectures (differing in this from North American universities I have taught at, where lectures in principle were compulsory, and students did not attend). Most teaching takes place in tutorials, typically in groups of one or two, though I have been told that some colleges are cutting costs by increasing the size of tutorial groups.

I have rather sumptuous offices in both the department and the college. The college provides free (and quite elegant) lunches, as well as dinners if I didn’t have to be home in the evening, and if I had a dinner suit (tuxedo) and academic gown to wear. This may seem like an extravagant expense, though it actually makes good economic sense. Universities, particularly in the US, increasingly are being forced to compete for top research talent with ever more lavish salaries. An alternative is to attract academics with special perquisites that the university is specially suited to provide. In addition to tenure, which clearly provides a substitute for a considerable amount of salary, the lunchtime company of other academics is one of the cheap resources that universities have in profusion. The college gardens are another benefit peculiarly suited to intellectuals. That still leaves open the unanswerable question posed by my 11-year-old neighbour: “So they’re giving you a house and meals. Why are they paying you?”

Housing

One of the most important college perquisites is the housing allowance, which can take several forms, but which currently takes the form of a house, which the college is simply making available to us, to live in for five years. It is in the Jericho neighbourhood of Oxford, a currently very trendy area, sort of a peninsula bordered by a slight bend in the Oxford Canal, and Worcester College. Our house is in Nelson Street, with a backyard up against the Worcester College wall, with the college cricket field on the other side. It’s a lovely little terrace house, painted yellow, with two bedrooms on the upper floor, many skylights, and a small attic which will be attractive as a study, as long as the insulation material turns out not to be a health hazard (something we’re trying to find out).

Our house was blown up last week:

house blowup

Fortunately, by the time we arrived all was back in pristine condition. This was part of the filming of a popular television mystery series set in Oxford.

Prices

“Things are so expensive in England.” That’s what everyone says. A colleague in Kingston expressed sympathy for us moving to Oxford, telling us of friends of his who had made a similar move, and were forced to trade their half acre in Kingston for a two-bedroom apartment in Oxford, and their two splendid automobiles for two bicycles. In fact, while housing prices are quite high here, they are no higher than in Berkeley, where I used to live. In both places, high prices are largely a symptom of an attractive place to live. In the UK, this is exacerbated by longstanding greenbelt regulations that inhibit urban sprawl and protect open spaces, but also inhibit new housing construction. There can be little doubt that higher housing costs as a fee for preserving open space is at least money being spent on something worthwhile (even while one may haggle over the exact price, leading to compromises and corrections to the greenbelt program).

Certainly, the kinds of things that tourists are likely to encounter — hotel rooms, cafes, restaurant meals, train tickets, gasoline — are quite expensive here, compared with the US or Canada: The prices tend to be similar in pounds to their North American counterparts in dollars, making them effectively twice as high. Computer equipment seems to be 10-30% more expensive than in Canada, where they already seemed a bit pricier than in the US. On the other hand, cell phones and broadband internet service are a good deal cheaper than in Canada. In any case, these things make up a relatively small part of the average family’s budget when you’re living in a place. Supermarket food prices seem roughly comparable and, what’s more (and quite surprising to me), the quality is much higher. In particular, the fruits and vegetables are of a quality that we occasionally found in California, but never in Kingston. Delicious cheeses that you never see (and are probably illegal) in North America are readily available and not very expensive.

Synagogue

I was ritual committee chair for Congregation Iyr Hamelech, the reform congregation in Kingston, Ontario. There was a lot to quibble over, and the congregation suffered for not having a building, but there was a vibrant core of spiritually active reform Judaism, rather than the standard variety of conservative with ham. I’m interested to find out more about the Oxford Jewish Community (OJC), which purports to represent all Jews in Oxford. It remains to be seen how accurate this is. Certainly, as in every setting where there is supposed mutual respect between denominations, the Orthodox determine ritual matters, because they are the most sure of themselves. Thus, the soi-disant Orthodox are allowed to exclude women from Torah reading in their services (which are most of the services at the synagogue — Liberal services are only once a month), but woe if the Liberal Shabbat services include instrumental music.

On the other hand, our first impression is that the Hebrew school is very open, friendly, and competent, and Chaya very much enjoyed her first day there. I imagine we will find a modus vivendi. It is to their credit that they chose to site the synagogue just one block from our house.

Weather and Politics

From the old “Moving to Canada” blog, originally posted on 22 Jan, 2006:

Two things I did not anticipate for January in Kingston: A federal election, and having to remove my coat to cool off while bicycling.

Weather (or où sont les neiges d’antan?)

I didn’t expect to be able to bicycle at all in the winter, since I expected the roads to be icy and dangerously narrowed by snowbanks.  Instead, the two feet or so of December snow have vanished, except for a few tough icy rinds, and we’re back to shuttling Chaya to daycare in her bike trailer.  Some nights it has not even been dipping below freezing.  It’s like an unending late fall, with the days getting longer. Meanwhile, Europe has been having a Canadian winter.  The natives here complain about the weather.  It’s too slushy. They want the streets properly frozen.

Skating is a big deal in Canada.  Skating rinks are an essential public service, and municipal governments are judged in their effectiveness on their ability to keep them well maintained, and in their social conscience on making them available to the poor.  In this, they are like the swimming pools in German cities, or railway bicycle storage in the Netherlands.  Or prisons in the US…  The Market Square in Kingston (soon to be renamed the Springer Market Square, according to a backroom city council sponsorship deal which is now the topic of legal action) has had a cooled outdoor ice rink installed, open 12 hours a day every day, and several parks have had wooden ovals installed, which they hose down at regular intervals and let freeze, if the weather is cold enough.  Whereas middle class men in the US are always off to their basketball leagues, here they go play hockey at midnight, because that’s when they were able to get the ice free. Continue reading “Weather and Politics”

Winnipeg

From the old “Moving to Canada” blog, originally posted on 10 July, 2005:

To begin with, I should say that, for the first time ever, I was on a Canadian train that arrived on time.  In fact, it was half an hour early.  Of course, that’s just the flip side of the casual timing that I mentioned in my previous posting.

At home, I am rarely out of contact with real-time news sources for very long, so one of the real novelties of travel is that I get to be surprised by an accumulation of news.  We arrived Thursday, July 7 in Winnipeg, and one of our fellow travelers, someone we had spoken with in the Jasper station, told us she had heard that there had been a major terrorist attack in London.  No further information.  Then we walked out into the city.  We passed the provincial parliament building, and noted that the flags were flying at half staff.  It was another couple of hours before we learned that several dozen people had been killed by four separate bombs on public transport in London: horrid, but not another 9/11, not even (apparently) another Madrid.  Such is the calibration of our times.

Winnipeg was a bit of a surprise.  Knowing nothing about the city except its geographic location, I expected it to be like all the flat US cities I know, pedestrian in all but the literal sense.  In fact, Winnipeg is a good deal more attractive than that, on a human scale, pleasant to walk.  I had been warned that torrential rains over the past several weeks had caused an upsurge in mosquito activity, and potentially an early start to the West Nile Fever season.  It sounded bad enough that we considered giving the city a miss — and we might have, if not for the extra fees that Via Rail would have charged to change the dates for our travel, about $600 extra on $700 tickets.  I’m happy they dissuaded us, though, because Winnipeg is definitely worth visiting.  I got a few bites, but nothing terribly unpleasant, and there didn’t seem to be any toxic spraying going on either.  I wish we had more time to see the city, because we ended up spending most of our time (as planned) at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Continue reading “Winnipeg”

We enter Canada

In the end, the immigration procedure was at the very lower limit of the range of hassle I had anticipated.  The immigration officers did not kiss us on both cheeks, shout “Welcome home, future Canadians,” or sing a chorus of “O Canada!”  (It would have been premature, in any case.  Perhaps they do that at citizenship ceremonies.)  But they were cordial, calm, and easy to please.  Over all, the procedure was about as formal and confrontational as purchasing a gym membership — You don’t qualify for this deal, how about this other one? Sorry it’s taking so long, we’ve just had a rush of customers.  (There were two RV-loads of Israelis whose passports were about to expire, requiring some personal attention from the immigration officer.)  There was none of the atmosphere of suspicion that hangs so thick over US Customs and Immigration. In fact, of all the papers we brought with us, the only ones they even looked at were the passports, the letters about the job offers from Queen’s, the HRDC letter (which they said I actually didn’t need, because of NAFTA — the people at Queen’s have a different interpretation), and Chaya’s birth certificate.  The list of items we had with us were cursorily perused, because I handed it to the official who was asking us what we might have to declare, but it was clearly more than she wanted to know.  The biggest surprise was on the issue of common law marriage.  I had expected a discussion that started with a presumption of marriage, then we would explain that we are not married, and would then be asked for the form, and some documentation.  Instead, she asked, “Are you married?  Common law?” and didn’t ask for any proof.

Whereas we ordinarily speak German at home — except Chaya, who typically insists on speaking mainly English — Julia felt it would make a bad impression on the immigration officials for us to be speaking a foreign language between us, so we spoke English.  Chaya was in no mood to change routines.  “We don’t sprech Englisch.  Wir sprechen German.”  She was also upset that the woman took her passport away, and asked quite boldly for its return.

Chaya has been challenged by the new circumstances.  In particular, for the past couple of months she has been telling everyone she meets, apropos of nothing, “I’m going to Canada.  There’s snow there.”  I’ve been trying to explain to her that it makes no sense to tell people that she is going to Canada when she is already in Canada.  She feels a bit cheated by the absence of snow, but if you try to explain seasons to a native Californian two-year-old, you may as well teach quantum mechanics.

Introduction to “Moving to Canada”

Introduction to the old “Moving to Canada” blog, originally posted 20 June, 2005:

Why are we moving?  Why Canada?

The simple answer is, we needed jobs.  Professors are like soldiers and priests, sitting on their bags, waiting for their next billet.  Less so in North America than in Germany, where you do 15 years of postgraduate training, and then cluck about in the university coop until a job opens up.  Between us, we applied for about 60 jobs, were invited for 11 interviews, and received two offers, one from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and one from Louvain-la-Neuve, in Belgium.  About two thirds of the jobs were in the US, but we only had three interviews.  Two of these were at Yale, where they told us they found us quite interesting, but they didn’t really have jobs open, and weren’t quite sure why they had invited us.  We had heard that Canadian universities often have very generous policies for supporting academic couples, a crucial point when considering how many couples we know who work hundreds or thousands of miles apart, or where one or the other has abandoned all career ambitions.  Queen’s attracted our attention very early for its very generous policy, clearly stated on its website.  They were as good as their word: After offering me a position as associate professor in the mathematics/statistics department, they created a special five-year position for Julia, half in math/stat, half in community health/epidemiology.

While many left-wing Americans like myself have prattled about moving to Canada as a protest against the Bush regime, or to have a field where progressive politics are not forelorn, they pretty much all stayed put in the end.  We have no illusions of Canada as a progressive Shangri-La, but we are going.  Sutter’s Mill pulled more pioneers out west than a dozen idealistic Horace Greeleys.

Continue reading “Introduction to “Moving to Canada””