No smoke without ire

Julian Babik's hopes of an academic career in maths were choked off ? because, he says, his university didn't protect him from cigarette fumes in lectures. Lucy Hodges reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Julian Babik signed up for a degree in maths at Leicester University, he was thrilled to be receiving a university education at last, and secretly hoping it would lead to a job as an academic. At the age of 27, it had taken him a long time to be ready for higher education. But he had finally proved himself to be gifted at mathematics after obtaining a grade A in A-level at the local further education college, so he had high hopes.

Seven years on, however, he is still hoping. The education he was engaged on was cut short, and he has no job. His ambitions have never been realised, and the reason, he says, is that he was so severely sensitive to cigarette smoke that he was reduced to a quivering wreck in the evenings.

"I was unable to work," he says. "I was going home with trembling limbs, an aching or numb head, and feeling as though my mind had been squeezed partly out of my skull. Often I would not feel fully recovered until the following morning, and then I would have to subject myself to the same ordeal all over again."

The university says that Mr Babik had never complained about the cigarette smoke until after he had been suspended from his course for failing to take his exams. "We did everything we could to help him continue," says Kathy Williams, the academic registrar. "We gave him a second chance, but it was not on terms he was prepared to accept."

At the time cigarette smoking was allowed in the foyer of the university's Bennett Building, which houses eight lecture theatres, but was banned in the lecture theatres themselves. Mr Babik, who is now 34, claims that the smoke from the foyer seeped through into the maths lecture theatre. Both doors from the foyer were required to stand open for five minutes at the end of each hour and for five minutes into the next, and to remain open when the theatre was not in use. So cigarette smoke accumulated inside quickly.

The effect on Mr Babik was devastating, he says. "After only two months of this, it was as though a layer of cellophane had suddenly been stripped from my airways and, in country lanes and cities alike, I suddenly found the smell and texture of vehicle fumes so overpowering that my body was choking." That sensitivity to fuel emissions has lasted to this day, affecting his health and his ability to run and walk around the countryside, an activity that is one of his great loves.

Unfortunately, Mr Babik did not make his misery known to the authorities. He is very stubborn, he says, and told himself he had to stay the course. So, although attending lectures was a kind of purgatory, he suffered in silence, hoping that he would get used to it. It didn't cross his mind to tell anyone except his parents.

On one occasion, when he was hit with a sudden, acute pain in the head through a lack of air in the lecture theatre, he went to see a doctor in the student health centre. The doctor told him to talk to his lecturers, so he approached one he thought might be sympathetic. "He told me he did not like the smoke either, but deemed the issue too contentious and did not wish to become involved in any campaign," explains Mr Babik. "I then approached, on two occasions, both the safety office and the estates and buildings office. Both of them promised a reply but produced none." The outcome was disastrous for his academic performance, he maintains. Because he wasn't able to work, he didn't do his assignments and he failed to attend his seminars. Finally, he did not take his end-of-year exams. The end result was that the university terminated his course.

Mr Babik had the right to appeal against this decision – and he did. But he didn't say a word about the smoking problem at the hearing because, he says, he was advised not to. In addition, signs forbidding smoking had appeared in the foyer of the Bennett Building, so he thought his verbal complaints had been noted after all, and that things were about to get better.

But the outcome of the appeal was not what he'd expected: he was suspended from his course for a year. Mr Babik had produced medical evidence of depression at the hearing, because depression had been one of the reasons for missing his exams. "I was certainly depressed by then, but it was an effect rather than a cause," he says.

The appeals board therefore made his return to the course dependent on his providing a psychiatrist's report. That report should state that the problems of depression leading to the termination of his course had been sufficiently resolved for him to return to his studies, he was told. "It is evident that you are a very able student who has the capacity to achieve a very good degree," said the board's letter.

In his year of suspension Mr Babik did consult a psychiatrist – but the psychiatrist said there was nothing wrong with him mentally. His problems lay elsewhere; with the smoking and his reaction to it. He therefore had no report to give the university.

Mr Babik acknowledges that he could have got a report from the psychiatrist, but says he didn't want to because he felt it would stigmatise him as having had psychiatric problems. In addition, he was concerned that it would do nothing to solve the real problem, which was the smoke in the Bennett Building. "I had discovered that the smoking ban was only partial and that smoking was still permitted next to the lecture theatre in question."

In desperation, Mr Babik turned up at the university to see the vice-chancellor, who was then Dr Kenneth Edwards. He was referred to a pro vice-chancellor, who listened to his complaints. But the university did nothing further because Mr Babik had never produced the requested psychiatrist's report.

After several years he tried to cut his losses by applying to study maths at a different university, Warwick. He was asked to attend an interview but had to postpone it for medical reasons. When he telephoned to rearrange it, he was told by Warwick that they could not go ahead with his application. He believes that this happened because he was given a bad reference by Leicester University.

So, Mr Babik felt boxed in by what he saw as a Kafkaesque university administration. Unable to reapply to Leicester because of his determination not to be tagged with a psychiatric report, he also felt unable to apply elsewhere because of the reputation he had acquired. He did not know which way to turn. He ended up writing to the Queen, the Prime Minister and the Health and Education departments.

Apparently no one at Leicester had told him about the Visitor, the final court of appeal for complainants in "old" universities. Finally, the Department for Education and Skills did. He fired off a complaint to the Visitor of Leicester University – in this case the Privy Council – which found that the university did not act unreasonably. So Mr Babik was back to square one, and he has been there ever since.

His case raises a number of important questions, according to the National Union of Students. It is quite common for students to have legitimate complaints but to find it difficult to put those complaints in writing, says a spokeswoman. "Students tend to do things more informally and to chat to people. They don't understand how important it is to do things formally and to write everything down."

It is also common to find people resistant to the idea of obtaining a psychiatric report, particularly if they feel they have no psychiatric problem. This view was endorsed by Neil McDougall, a veteran of the student complaints system, who is still bringing a complaint through the Visitor system 10 years after his complaint began. "If he doesn't think he is psychiatrically ill, then he wants to counter that idea," Mr McDougall says.

Another problem in Mr Babik's case is that the university claims he was violent on one occasion. He was said to have thrown a chair across the room. Mr Babik denies this, though he does admit he has a temper and once threw a cup at a wall after a gruelling session in the lecture theatre.

If Mr Babik were starting out on his university career now, he would find himself in a more fortunate position. Eighteen months ago, Leicester banned smoking entirely in the Bennett Building. Smoking is now banned on about 80 per cent of the campus, according to Kathy Williams. Clive Bates, the director of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) welcomes that decision. Finally universities are catching up with other workplaces, he says. "It is extraordinary that it has taken them so long. They should be in the lead. Leicester is at the back of the pack along with minicab offices and launderettes."

But it is too late for Mr Babik. If he were going to university now he would also benefit from the new appeals system due to replace the Visitor. An ombudsman is to be introduced to hear student complaints. It is expected to have investigatory powers, and to take students' individual circumstances and the way the university responded to the complaint into account. As it is, Mr Babik is still without a degree, even though the country is crying out for maths graduates and he is thought to be well capable of achieving a degree. "He's a wonderful mathematician," says Peter Peasgood, who taught him at Charles Keene College, where he got his A-level.