Higher love is so low

Cheating at colleges isn't just in exams
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If you thought Howard Kirk, the philandering anti-hero of The History Man, was far-fetched, you have another think coming. According to Jean Norris, who has been at the receiving end of such treatment from her husband (see box, below right), the author, Malcolm Bradbury, was simply writing about a routine phenomenon on university campuses.

"It is common for academic men to have affairs with female students," she says. "I know that it's rife. It's endemic in universities and colleges. But they won't address it."

That is why she has set up a support group for the wives of academics who have been deserted in favour of students. The group was established formally on the Internet 10 days ago, and already Mrs Norris says she has had "an enormous response".

She adds: "I was quite taken aback by the response. I knew what went on from my own experiences, and from other people's stories, and what I had heard from living in that kind of environment. But I had not expected so many people to get in touch."

The women who contacted her expressed relief that someone had finally spoken out on the matter, she says. They were also relieved to be taken seriously, and to be able to talk to someone who had been in the same position as themselves. But they didn't want to make their stories public because they feared the repercussions.

Although Mrs Norris started the group to help other wives like herself, she has found herself also contacted by academics themselves, who are unhappy with what their colleagues are doing because they feel it reflects on them. She has also been contacted by students - those who have been involved with staff, and those who have witnessed staff-student relationships.

"One of the most damning reports I had was from someone who wanted to bring an affair out into the open because of the damage it was doing to the department, and they were penalised and intimidated by the academic hierarchy, and suffered quite seriously academically as a result of that," she says.

Mrs Norris points the finger unequivocally at higher education institutions. The issue is not just about people having the freedom to have sex with whoever they like, she says. That's the least of the problems. Nor is it simply a personal tragedy. "It's about academic integrity. But the universities and colleges are just loath to tackle it." They lack the will, she says.

"Universities should decide whether such practices are acceptable, and if they are, they should justify why they're acceptable. I think they'd find that hard going because, by its nature, adultery is based on lies, deceit and cheating." Mrs Norris is hopeful that any debate would help the wives and families of adulterous lecturers who at present, she says, are blackmailed to keep quiet by their husbands. They are told that if they don't keep quiet, they will suffer financially and could even end up without a home.

Also, it's in the colleges' and universities' interests to keep quiet, because the last thing they want is bad publicity. "That increases the trauma, because you're up against a major institution with a lot of power," she says. "It's a David and Goliath situation."

In America, institutions take a much tougher line against the academics concerned. In the United Kingdom guidelines exist, but they don't go far enough, according to Mrs Norris.

For example, Southampton Institute, where her husband teaches, has regulations governing staff-student relationships. These say that such relationships are incompatible with the staff's professional responsibilities, and must be declared to the head of department. Where such an affair is found to exist, the professional relationship between staff and student will be ended. The member of staff will not be involved in assessing the student's work. Nor will he or she "normally" be involved in teaching the student.

Mrs Norris believes it is not enough to move the academic away from professional contact with the student concerned. The lecturer should be suspended immediately, the affair formally investigated, and the findings made public. The incident should be permanently recorded on the academic's record, she says. Then, either the lecturer or the student should be removed entirely from the course on which they met.

In situations where academics are seducing young students, and where there is a pattern of this kind of seduction, the lecturers should be removed from the course. In other cases, it may be right to remove students from the course. "But someone has to go, because otherwise the students involved with lecturers will be at an advantage compared with other students. They may have access to superior knowledge of the course, the syllabus and the examination questions," she says. "There's no way you can distance the possibility of that student having access to all that information and being in an extremely advantageous position when the others aren't. It's very much like cheating. And you can't allow cheating.

"You've got to be fair to the other students in a group. They're never considered. If they do decide to fight what's going on, they suffer very greatly because of it. In one case, I knew someone who had to leave the course as a result. That is totally and utterly wrong. I know of students who are extremely dissatisfied, and have tried to get something done and tried to bring formal complaints."

Mrs Norris would like her group not only to support women, but to lobby on their behalf by representing deserted women with the colleges and universities concerned, in the same way that student unions represent students. She is also prepared to take the issue up nationally with the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, because it's a national problem. "They can't go on ignoring it," she says. "They're using public money to fund these establishments, and they should be accountable for the academic integrity of those institutions."

Contact the support group via e-mail on jeannorris@hotmail.com. Jean Norris thanks all those who have contacted her already. She says she will treat every communication in confidence, and will respond to those who have written as soon as she can. She is also seeking funding for her new group, as well as practical help or help in kind. Please write to her if you can help, on the e-mail address above