Disputes in British Universities

Julian Babik, Leicester University

Dear Mr. Daugherty,

I would like the account of my case to remain in the form of a letter to Jaswinder Gill, because I feel that with regard to my case he has demonstrated a contempt similar to that for which he criticizes the Visitor.

Dear Mr. Gill,

I feel I have to ask for an explanation of why you refused to help me, especially since on p. 40 of your book you assert that "injury may be psychological as well as physical", and on p. 46 that ' "Obtaining psychiatric help" should not be made a condition of being allowed to complete a degree', both of which are extremely pertinent to my case, of which I would entreat you to read these brief details:

When I began a degree-course at Leicester University in 1995, I was shocked to discover that smoking was permitted throughout the large, windowless foyer that served eight lecture-theatres including the classroom-sized one in which all my lectures were to take place. In the lecture-theatre, it wasn't a case of an occasional whiff: the smell of 'live' smoke pervaded the atmosphere and intensified as the day went on. I had for years been avoiding such environments because cigarette-smoke makes me restless and gives me headaches, and I would not have tolerated this even for a day had there not been so much at stake. However, prior to going to university I had put a firm stranglehold on myself to 'stay the course', so for the first four months I endured the smoke in silence, hoping I would become inured to it and (tragically) thinking I was 'doing the right thing' and being very self-disciplined.

From the outset, the smoke was more than an annoyance: when in the lecture-theatre, I was 'in a world of my own', unable to concentrate, preoccupied with the tension in my breathing-mechanism caused by my body's reluctance to draw in the smoke prickling the entrance to my nose. Nor was I able to work in the evenings, as the effects of several hours of restricted breathing do not simply pass after a breath or two of fresh air: when I got home I was often unable to hold a pen steady, and often would not feel recovered until the following morning, when I would have to subject myself to the same ordeal all over again. (The fact that I maintained an almost-100% attendance-record throughout my year at university is testimony to my determination, something not one of those I have approached for help has been able to appreciate. It rankles indescribably that the University should have branded me as incapable). As if that weren't enough, after only two months it was as though a layer of Cellophane had suddenly been stripped from my airways and I suddenly found the smell and texture of vehicle-fumes (which had scarcely registered before, even in the busiest of thoroughfares) so overpowering and raw that my body was choking rather than helping itself by reflex to fume-tainted air - a catastrophic and crippling blow especially to me, because until then I had walked and run everywhere I needed to go, and had found great joy in doing so.

I have been in this condition ever since, and it is a living hell. Initially, as with my difficulties in the lecture-theatre, I blamed myself for this and was afraid to say anything about it except to my parents, fearing it was some embarrassing nervous overreaction on my part that would eventually subside. Only after I had been suspended from university was I informed by an allergy specialist that it was a recognised physiological effect whereby if one is exposed for too long to a substance to which one is already sensitive, one becomes sensitized to other things.

In February 1996 I suffered a sudden head-pain due to lack of air during a lecture, and my distress was such that I was sent to see a doctor at the Student Health Centre. The doctor opined that the smoking-policy was 'unfair' and advised me to complain to the Students' Union. The Union's representative met me in a corridor and, without even asking me into a room, straightaway advised me to complain to my lecturers - the Union was probably on the smokers' side. The lecturer I approached deemed the issue too contentious and likewise 'passed the buck', as did both the Safety Office and the Estates & Buildings Office.

Because I had been unable to work throughout the year, I felt unable to go to my end-of-year exams, whereupon my course was terminated by the university.

I appealed against the decision but said not a word at the hearing because the lecturer who defended me spoke very highly of me and also because 'No smoking' signs (due to take effect after that summer) had appeared in the foyer a day or two before: I thought that my complaints had been noted after all, and that things were about to improve. I was suspended for a year; and because I had produced medical evidence of depression having been one of the reasons for my missing my exams (I certainly was depressed by then, but it was an effect rather than a cause), the appeals board made it a condition for my return that I provide them with a psychiatrist's report stating that I was fit to continue my studies.

Perhaps they were expecting me to undergo some course of treatment; however, after only a single, half-hour meeting, the psychiatrist stated that she was prepared to write to the University to tell them that my problem was outside her domain.

I asked her to wait until I was due to re-enter the university; and then, with only a few weeks to go, I discovered that the smoking-ban in the foyer was only partial and that smoking was still permitted in a large alcove (about a third of the foyer's total area) right next to the very lecture-theatre in question. I immediately went to see one of the Pro-Vice-Chancellors: I thought that the university's administrators must surely be reasonable, fair-minded people who, seeing they knew only half the story, would be ready to consider what I had to say.

The P.V.C. dismissed all my complaints about the university's failings (which I by no means enumerate here) with a hasty 'Oh yes yes yes; we're looking to the future now', and made it clear that the university chose to regard the smoking as a separate matter.

Had I provided them with a psychiatrist's report, I would have been oh-so-graciously readmitted (with a black mark against my name for something they had caused), yet would have been unable to return, while the university would have regarded the matter (or what was in fact an artificially-separated aspect of it) as resolved. I therefore refused to supply something so personal.

That is how the situation has stood ever since. In 1999 I applied to the University of Warwick; but an unknown person from the admin. at Leicester sent them a letter telling them I was an awkward customer, and they decided not to proceed with my application.

Early in 2000, without any warning, I received a letter informing me that my registration at Leicester had lapsed; but they could still wreck any application I might make elsewhere, because the UCAS form requires that I state whether or not I have previously attended university.

I am therefore in a complete impasse. I have approached many influential people for help, but the mere mention of a psychiatrist being involved to whatever degree in my case has been enough to scare them off, regardless of the contents of Dr. Khoosal's letter, a copy of which I enclose. I therefore feel my best hope is with you or someone like you.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find another lawyer specializing in this field. If you still feel unable to help, then (and this is a serious question) perhaps you could recommend a Human Rights lawyer who might? Yours sincerely, Julian Babik.

The Visitor (to whom I took my case in 2000) judged that the University's demanding a psychiatrist's report was a reasonable response to a plea of 'depression' - without examining and scarcely acknowledging the year-long catalogue of instances of negligence that had given rise to such a juncture - such as, for example, the fact the the University did break their own regulations when, without offering any explanation for doing so, they refused me a change of Personal Tutor, which I requested early into my year at Leicester after my Tutor, seeing I was ailing, told me the university would 'drop (me) like a hot potato'. No other members of staff believed me when I told them that he had expressed such an opinion, let alone that he had used such words.

My Tutor also declared 'My job is to teach you mathematics' when it was meant to be 'anything but'!: one of his principal duties was to liaise on my behalf with the administration in the event of any dispute. I had no-one to do this for me , and it certainly had a significant effect on the course and outcome of everything that happened.

I would also consider it a punishable failure on the University's part that they didn't include their own internal complaints procedure (let alone anything about the Visitor) in that year's substantial volume of Undergraduate Regulations, which contained many pages about how complaints against students were to be dealt with, but not a word about the sort of complaint I needed to make.

However, the most infuriating thing is that, had the Visitor lived up to the promise of her very misleading title, she could have witnessed with her own senses that the University had lied when they assured her that action had been taken as a result of my complaints and a ban imposed on smoking in the relevant area. They had several times given me the same assurance in the years following my suspension, prompting my friend's father (a magistrate) to take photographs in the area to show that the assurances were false.

Last summer, I contacted Mr. Graham Donald at the Privy Council Office to ask once again whether there was any way I could take my case forward. Mr. Donald assured me there wasn't and that (other than going to university) 'there are plenty of things for an intelligent person to do' - the most patronising thing anyone has ever said to me.

What makes it worse is that I didn't embark on a degree-course just to pass the time or to gain a qualification: although it had taken me a long time, I had finally realised that Mathematics would be the best synthesis of what creative talents I thought I had, and I was longing to know where the subject led and to make a career of it if I proved good enough.