Sex, drugs and the dons

Read campus novels, and you wouldn't send students within a mile of a university, says David Walker
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Sir Ron Dearing wants students (and their parents) to pump millions of extra pounds into a set of institutions staffed by paedophiles, drunks and half-wits - a sad, self-absorbed crew of intellectual malcontents who like sex with plastic dolls, drink copious quantities of cheap and nasty instant coffee, and spend their time in petty intrigues on futile committees. Yes, and they occasionally read and write books.

That's not my opinion of British academics. It's academics' own self- appraisal, written up in the pages of the university novel, not a genre you would visit for moral uplift, though you might for hints about kinky sex.

The latest example is Simon Gray's Breaking Hearts, published this week by Faber. It's a sour account of drugs, bondage and green carpets in London's Mile End Road - at least we assume the university portrayed in the 84- page novella is Queen Mary and Westfield College, since Gray has been lecturing at the East End institution for the past 20 years. Very unhappily, by the sound of it.

QMWC, a workaday college of London University, is not at all like the University of Sussex, "Watermouth" in Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man, all Basil Spence modernity and echoes of the Sixties. It bears very little resemblance either to Birmingham University on its hill in Edgbaston, locale for David Lodge's caustic representations of academic life in Small World and Nice Work.

But all three share traits, the most conspicuous of which is that male academics find sexual fulfilment extremely hard, even with all those lush acres of teenage flesh all around them. One reason is that their quest is bedevilled by academic feminists, linguistic thought police. British universities may not be quite as PC as the college portrayed in David Mamet's Oleanna but, according to Simon Gray, they are not far off.

The university novel was created by Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim, based on his time as a lecturer at Swansea University College. Thanks to him and his successors we know universities to be full of people who are morally degraded, pettily paranoid and obsessed with language to only a slightly lesser degree than they are obsessed with sex. (Not just the male professors - academic lesbianism is in full swing in the campus novel.)

The fictional university is not a nice place. Andrew Davies's brilliant scripts for A Very Peculiar Practice peopled Lowlands University (Warwick?) with misfits and sexual predators: imagine Cracker (Manchester University) or Morse (Oxford) without deviant dons. Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse (adapted for television by Malcolm Bradbury while he was still teaching at the University of East Anglia as a professor) was a feast of Oxbridge gargoyles. From Evelyn Waugh to Iris Murdoch the university has appealed to fiction writers as a prime location for moral bad hats, murderers and child molesters, all of them with the added advantage of academic articulacy.

The question is: is the fiction really so misleading? Perhaps the problem is that Eng Lit professors in the field tend to fancy themselves as novelists and English has gone through some strange times of late - grappling with structuralism, deconstructionism and the advance of the feminists. Malcolm Bradbury made lecherous Howard Kirk a sociologist on the grounds that sociologists espouse a fashionable relativism in morals.

But there is evidence that academic amorality existed a long time ago, well before spending cuts bit and queer studies got going, especially Cornford's Microcosmographia Academica, a guide for campus Machiavellians written a century ago.

Anecdote suggests fictional accounts of lust in the lecture hall are accurate - or rather that they were, academic libido being squeezed these days under mounds of report forms for the new research bureaucracy. Ever since women arrived in higher education, the predominantly male professoriate has been tempted. For three years we entrust susceptible young people to a gang of sexual predators.

Perhaps it is just that donnish novelists, being as lazy as the next person, make use of the only first-hand experience they have got to weave their fiction around. If stockbrokers or market gardeners could write, wouldn't their fiction be as replete with philandering round the futures desk or passion behind the potting shed?