GLOBAL: Ban sex between lecturers and students?

When Professor Istvan Pogany, 57, began a consensual relationship with one of his students at Britain's University of Warwick, he did what many would consider 'good practice' and informed his line manager. But the student, who is in her 30s, then fell pregnant and her subsequent anguished decision to have an abortion led to lurid headlines that raised the question again whether intimate relationships between academics and students should be more strongly discouraged, or even prohibited.

Warwick, like many other universities, has struggled with this highly complex issue for years and is continually seeking to improve its response: "We've been looking at our policy as regards all sorts of personal relationships long before this incident arose," said a university spokesman.

It is all a world away from the liberal attitude of the past, as illustrated by an Oxford warden who remarked that: "Freddie [A.J Ayer the famous philosopher] fell into bed with everyone who was remotely willing, and an awful lot of young women were very happy to tick him off on the list of famous professors they had laid." (As quoted in the Times Higher Education last May.)

Universities everywhere would prefer not to have to deal with this issue. But 'fallen' academics have been forced back into the spotlight because their humiliation is the subject of the latest Hollywood blockbuster 'Disgrace', starring John Malkovich and shortly on general release.

The film is based on JM Coetzee's novel of the same name and recounts the story of David Lurie, a divorced 52-year-old professor at a university in South Africa. Lurie dutifully fulfils his role as a lecturer but lives a life without passion until he decides to seduce one of his students.

The relationship deteriorates and eventually leads to him being charged with harassment and made into an outcast. After being forced to resign, Lurie heads off into the South African wilderness in search of some kind of redemption.

To what extent does this character's experience mirror real-life situations in universities? Has this scenario become more or less likely in recent decades?

Perhaps ironically, Professor Manola Makhanya, Pro vice-chancellor of the University of South Africa - with 286,000 students and 2,500 teaching staff - struggled to think of a single example of an academic forced out by a sex scandal.

"We have only sacked five academics in the last 10 years and those have mostly been cases where people have been involved in the disappearance of huge sums of money from our regional centres," Makhanya said.

"In the past, before democracy, these things would never have been heard about but now students are more aware of their rights and more ready to complain. We have procedures to deal with any case of alleged harassment and I am very aware of the potential damage it can cause; the problem can be of such a nature that it can compromise an institution completely."

The issue is also very much in academic minds at British universities where, according to Rob Briner, a professor of organisational psychology at Birkbeck University, the old Oxbridge ideal of meeting students for a glass of sherry at 11am is now long gone.

"When I was a student, the lecturer would close the door for a tutorial but now lecturers are vary wary of doing things like that - most just wouldn't do it," Briner said. "Staff are aware of the need to keep away from situations where they might be accused of doing anything."

He said there had also been a shift in student attitudes in Britain which had changed the academic environment: "Students are much more aware of their rights than before and are much more likely to complain in general. On the other hand, student numbers have risen dramatically in recent years and the number of people who pay for their courses has increased; as a result they are perhaps less focused on the education aspect and much more interested in getting their degree."

British universities have become more wary of possible allegations of abuse on the one hand but have also in many cases come to accept they cannot prevent relationships taking place.

A survey by the Times Higher Education Supplement in 2005 found that 52 out of 102 institutions had developed policies on the issue with many, like Birkbeck, requiring that any such relationship be declared to the employee's line manager.

"Like in a lot of other policy areas, the organisation is trying to acknowledge that it [sexual relations] is going on and then they can deal with it," Briner said.

Most universities contacted by University World News were either reluctant or unable to give numbers of lecturers who had been forced to resign as a result of a sexual relationship with a student. In America - where many universities have an outright ban on student-lecturer relationships - the American Association of University Professors was unable to provide any statistics on the issue.

"Although we handle hundreds and even thousands of inquiries and complaints each year... there is no central source for statistics on the nature of those cases," said Dr John Curtis, Director of Research and Public Policy at the AAUP.

On the other hand, Curtis acknowledged that it had become easier for "a faculty member to be forced out of a job because of the increasing use of non-tenure employment arrangements [that] generally do not provide the protections of academic due process that we have long argued should be available to all".

In Spain, matters are much worse according to Dr Guillem Bou, President of the Congress against Corruption and Harassment in the University. "After Franco, it was believed that things would become much more civilised and universities were given increasing autonomy. But many in power interpreted this as a licence for them to do whatever they liked."

No-one was thrown out of their job in Spain for sexual harassment or anything else because they were civil servants, Bou said. Recently there was a case where a professor was found guilty by a judge of sexually harassing professors and other female students. Yet the university rector declared that "everyone can have a bad day" and allowed him to retain his post.

"I really can't see any hope here at the moment," Bou said. "In Spain, the best thing you can do is to go abroad or prostitute yourself directly."

Overall, though, it seems as if policies that require lecturers to reveal any intimate relationships they are having with students - now common in the UK and US - are likely to spread.

Makhanya was certainly enthusiastically considering whether such specific policies could be applied in South Africa: "It is important to focus on this because my sense is that it will increase," he said. "Clearly we have to come up with policies rather than sit back, be confronted with a situation and not know how to deal with it."