As a Lancaster University undergraduate, Jeremy Oppenheim (Sociology, 1977, Cartmel) reckoned he had life sussed.
So he was completely unprepared for a professor’s terse comment at the bottom of his long and flamboyant essay on the German theologian Rudolf Bultman, which read ‘but he is not the red-nosed reindeer’. The young Oppenheim - the Home Office’s Director for Growth and Engagement - had failed to note the spelling of the great man’s name, and had written it throughout as ‘Rudolph’. Such apparent pedantry wounded his pride at the time, but he says: 'It taught me an important lesson about the power of detail.'
It is something for which he is grateful on a daily basis in his current work requiring him to travel extensively round the world talking to businesses and educationalists about how to help people wishing to study or work in the UK and on other projects he supervises on organised crime and human trafficking. It was also vital in his previous job as Head of the Immigration Group.
Oppenheim arrived at Lancaster confident, clued up and determined to have a good time. The Jewish teenager, who had been expelled from his public school for writing a critique of the public school system. He had never intended to venture so far north, but he said: 'Lancaster was warm and friendly enough to welcome me.'
Convinced by his discovery that the city of Lancaster had more pubs per head of population and impressed by the architecture and intimacy of the campus, he rapidly settled in and made friends with whom he remains in touch to this day.
As a ‘passionate atheist’, he had heard about the reputation of Ninian Smart (his ‘Rudolph’ critic) in setting up the first religious studies course, which was the big academic draw for him. He was fascinated by the power of religion to galvanise people and change the course of world events.
Although he loved Smart’s course, it was the discovery of sociology which had the most powerful influence on his life. He says: 'It just turned my life on its head, making me look at everything from a different perspective for the rest of my life - the behaviour of people in groups.'
The teaching model suited him well. He thrived on the sparse lectures, extensive reading requirement and frequent seminars, where he believes he developed the skills to argue his point of view with colleagues and Ministers as he does daily.
Politics played a prominent part in his time at Lancaster - taking part in sit-ins and debates and even acting as a student representative on a disciplinary panel. Great bands in the university’s Great Hall were a regular highlight. A particularly memorable gig was the night the headline bandSparks played supported by a little-known band called Queen, before it became the rock sensation.
He also learned how to write well, as the university’s first sabbatical editor of Scan magazine. This tempted him to become a journalist, but in a climate of high unemployment when he finished his studies, he accepted a job at the Jewish Welfare Board. He loved it.
Backed by Social Work qualifications from Goldsmiths, he went on to a series of posts in Haringey Social Services, rising to Head of Children’s services, before leaving Local Government to become Chief Executive for Jewish Care. He joined the Home Office in 2003 as a Consultant in the National Asylum Support Services, for which he became Director. He went on to become Director of Social Policy and was responsible for the programme to regionalise the work of the then Immigration and Nationality Directorate. Between 2008 – 2011 he was Regional Director for the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber Region and was the national lead for temporary migration. In this capacity he was responsible for the introduction of the points-based system.
'I am very interested in the behaviour of people in groups,' says Oppenheim. 'Those things I learned about it at Lancaster inform my leadership practice every day.'
He admits to being very constructive, but challenging to his staff, and to questioning them hard about their justifications for taking a specific course of action and its timing. So perhaps Ninian Smart’s Rudolph gibe went in deep.