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Did Kingston University cheat over the 2019 Guardian university league tables ?

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Last month saw the publication of the Guardian university league tables for 2019, and the surprise news that Kingston University has jumped 23 places since last year – up from  81 to 58. With the best will in the world, it is difficult to imagine how a university that is undergoing such painful restructuring and downsizing through its ‘Plan 2020’ could improve so rapidly and so quickly – any fruits from this process would only have been produced gradually, over time. Meanwhile, in the rival Complete University Guide league tables, which appeared a couple of weeks before, Kingston registered a more modest and less implausible improvement, up from 102 to 95.

One person who has cast doubt on the accuracy of the Guardian league tables is Martin McQuillan, Kingston’s very own former Pro Vice-Chancellor of Research and Innovation, now editor of the obscure ‘*Research’ outfit.  After the league tables were published, McQuillan published an article, written by a Chris Parr, noting that ‘“Dramatic shifts” in the year-on-year results of the Guardian’s UK university rankings call their credibility into question’, with for example City, University of London, dropping 63 places in just twelve months, while Heriot-Watt dropped 42 places, Middlesex dropped 42 places, Aberystwyth rising 36 places and Derby rising 25 places. The article quotes a ‘rankings critic’, Stephen Curry, a professor of structural biology at Imperial College, London: ‘The dramatic shifts in rank for some institutions are a concern for The Guardian, and for anyone relying on their published rankings’. It turns out that the wild fluctuations reflect the fact that the methodology has been changed; i.e. the goalposts have been moved. ‘Given the change in methodology this year…any large shifts in position shouldn’t be given any credence’, said Curry.

Since the goalposts have been moved in a way that has benefited Kingston, the question arises as to whether this was coincidental. In this context, it is interesting to note that the Guardian league tables were compiled by one Matt Hiely-Rayner (pictured above). The Guardian website notes: ‘Matt is the director of Intelligent Metrix, an independent consultancy specialising in measures of higher education performance and activity. It has been compiling the undergraduate and postgraduate university guides for the Guardian since 2010’. The Guardian website does not mention, however, that Hiely-Rayner is also the Head of Planning at Kingston University, and therefore holds a senior administrative position at one of the universities he was evaluating. By any reasonable standard, this represents a serious conflict of interest.

That the Guardian university league table figures are problematic are amply demonstrated by the figures for the Student to Staff Ratio (SSR). As readers will be aware, Kingston is currently undergoing a brutal downsizing and restructuring under the name of ‘Plan2020’. According to the Plan2020 consultation proposal of January 2017, certain departments were targeted for academic staff cuts as follows:

Subject area       Current staff (FTE)      Proposed staff (FTE) 2017/8      Difference
Music                   12.9                                 6.9                                                   -6.0

Economics         19.7                                 13                                                    -6.7

Politics                14.4                                 10.4                                                -4.0

These targets were met or exceeded; in other words, the Music, Economics and Politics departments all suffered cuts of between a quarter and half. Bizarrely, however, the three departments registered improvements in their SSRs according to the Guardian university league table (ULT):

Subject area      Guardian ULT SSR 2018       Guardian ULT SSR 2019

Music                      19.6                                           16.6

Economics             18.1                                           16.5

Politics                    18.1                                          16.5

 

How is it possible for departments that have suffered such drastic cuts in their academic staff actually to improve their SSRs so significantly ? It is possible that part of the reason may be falling student numbers, but the most likely explanation is that Kingston University, with the guidance of Matt Hiely-Rayner, has found a way to fiddle the figures. That the SSRs for the three departments in question are so suspiciously uniform lends credence to this supposition. Interesting in this context is a comment posted recently at the Kingston University London Dissenter’s Blog: ‘Planning and HR have instructed me to fiddle the hesa staff return for years so nothing new here. Technicians and administrators are even being returned as being academic staff in order to improve the SSR figures. Bit devious if you ask me, but if it gets bums on seats and gets us up that table’.

The evidence therefore suggests that Kingston University’s implausible overall jump up the Guardian league table is a reflection of statistical manipulation rather than any actual improvement.

Now that the SMT has definitely decided to axe the entire History department, it will be interesting to see what statistics will be dredged up to justify this brutal measure. The department was not allowed to recruit new students last year, indicating that the decision to close it had already been taken, but staff were kept hanging until a couple of weeks ago, when they were finally told that the department would definitely close. The cynicism of the Kingston University SMT always exceeds expectations.

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Ine Julia, Features Editor of The River, interviews Kingston Dissenter (Twitter)

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The following interview was conducted on 6 March by Ine Julia, Features Editor of The River, with the individual who Tweets under the name ‘Kingston DissenterHowever, The River was unable to publish it for legal reasons, so we are publishing it here.

IJ: What is your motivation in tweeting about these sort of things? What do you want to achieve by spreading these perspectives?

KD: This Twitter account was set up to promote the writings of the Kingston University London Dissenter’s blog, and others who write or blog about the abusive behaviour of KU’s management, such as Kingston University Scandal and Howard Fredrics. Please note that I am not the same individual who runs the Dissenter blog.

IJ: In the bio you have written that you want to “highlight aggressive management…” What do you mean by “aggressive management”? Who are responsible for the aggressive management in your view?

KD: Kingston University has an exceptionally vicious management. They take is as a matter of faith to be aggressive and contemptuous of staff and to impose policies that disregard their wishes and interests – as if being heartless and macho is what makes good management. An example of cruel management was the refusal to enter certain departments for the last REF for the sake of some petty jump in university rankings, despite the enormous distress this caused loyal and hardworking staff and the fact that everyone made their objection plainly known. Or forcing people of Reader and Principal Lecturer rank to reapply for their existing jobs one year (transition to Associate Professors), then, after staff had barely recovered from the stress of that process, to force many of them to accept voluntary severance, early retirement or redundancy just a couple of years later. Or the fact that Evanthia Lyons, Head of the School of Social and Behavioural Sciences, had one of her favourites in Psychology promoted to professor last year, then apparently forced the rest of her staff to celebrate their promotion with cake at an Away Day, while the threat of impending redundancy was hanging over some of them.

KU’s management has long been abusive; the university has a longstanding reputation for staff bullying, and is in the hands of cliques that remain dominant even as individual members of the SMT and Board of Governors come and go. Some years ago, certain staff in Psychology were revealed to have illegally attempted to coach students on how to respond to the NSS, so as to boost KU’s scores. Far from it having damaged their careers, the staff members in question continue to flourish at KU because they are protected by powerful people in management, while other more honest staff have been driven or kicked out.

But things have got worse under the last two vice-chancellors, Julius Weinberg and Steven Spier, under whom management has attempted to make ‘radical’ changes to boost KU’s performance. These were based on the premise that KU suffered from a ‘staff deficit’ – i.e. the poor quality of its staff was the problem. They consequently made it a matter of principle to disregard staff experience and feelings and bring in outsiders to ‘shake things up’. One example was the unlamented former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), Martin McQuillan, who regularly broadcast his contempt for his own staff and could barely bring himself to meet with them. This contrasted with older, more established managers who, whatever their faults, at least had a feel for the place and its staff and were ready to talk to people. Staff are increasingly tortured with more and longer Away Days and other staff meetings, taking valuable time away from teaching preparation and research, despite the fact that our input is increasingly ignored as a matter of principle. It’s all about whipping the workforce into obedience. Yet all these ‘radical’ changes have only accelerated KU’s decline.

IJ: What is your broader perspectives on the education system in the UK? In what ways do KU link to this? I would really like you to highlight a couple of examples if possible.

KD: The broader context is the marketisation of higher education in the UK and the virus of managerialism that is infecting it. So, university managers are no longer academics who see themselves as heading teams of other academics with the goal of promoting research and helping students. Instead, they see themselves as equivalent to managers in the corporate world, more interested in things like targets, marketing, buzzwords and the like. They aim to make a splash in their posts through ‘radical’ and generally ill-thought-out changes – cunning plans – that meet short-term targets, so as to impress their seniors and move on to higher posts, after which others will be left to pick up the pieces.

One example of the creeping managerialist culture at Kingston is the tosh that is ‘Led by Learning’ – a bunch of vapid phrases and targets apparently aimed at impressing some imaginary corporate client. Another example is the U-turn that university policy has undergone in the last couple of years; from Julius Weinberg’s idea of emulating Russell Group universities by tightening admissions criteria and favouring research-intensive staff, to Steven Spier’s idea of turning the university back into a polytechnic, shedding many of its best researchers and focusing almost entirely on simply flogging as many degree courses as possible to anyone who will buy them. The policy will probably radically change again in another couple of years; more staff will be kicked out; and the rest will be expected to drop everything they had been doing and reorient themselves all over again.

IJ: Can you please let me know a bit more on your thoughts about the fact that KU wants to shut down The River? This obviously came as a shock to all of us, it seems as if the university does not see the point of a news publication and holding people to account – including the university bodies/sectors.

KD: The SMT feels under immense pressure because Plan2020 is not going well, the university is in severe decline and they do not know what they should do about it. They are floundering. In the midst of all this, they learn that the River is investigating the allegations of corruption concerning Martin McQuillan and Simon Morgan Wortham (who is currently in charge of implementing Plan2020). They feel under siege, with a mindset that can admit no criticism or failures on their own part. Instead of considering whether The River perhaps has a duty to bring to light serious wrongdoing on the part of senior management, they simply see it as evidence of disloyalty, while they believe everyone at the university owes them uncritical obedience. This is what happens when you have a management culture that is entirely top-down, control-freakish and ‘us vs them’, with ‘them’ being anyone in the university who isn’t their wholly docile follower.

If you’ll pardon the overused metaphor, they’re a bit like a certain former ruler of Germany, in the sense of being in a desperate situation, but still preferring to fight bitterly for every inch of the terrain rather than compromise, even if it’s a fight to destruction. They are very bloody-minded; bear in mind they spent over half a million pounds of taxpayers’ money hounding their former staff member, Howard Fredrics, creating a scandalous dispute that made the national press, when they could have settled with him quietly for a fraction of that amount.

IJ: What about Julius Weinberg? Former students working on The River wrote a quite extensive account on him…

KD: Julius Weinberg is the typical example of an outsider who came in thinking he could shake things up with a few half-baked ideas that flew in the face of years of staff experience. He had the cunning plan of making all modules last all year instead of just a semester, which massively and pointlessly reduced teaching flexibility and forced the scrapping of many perfectly good modules or part-modules that only lasted one semester. He had another cunning plan of shrinking the university to make it more exclusive, which simply accelerated the drop in student numbers. He failed as a vice-chancellor and was forced out, leaving the university in a mess, but it did his career no harm and he’s become head of Ofsted ! ‘Off to pursue new challenges’ as he put it – as if it were all about his own ego.

It’s a rule at Kingston that senior management makes all the decisions irrespective of the degree of staff opposition, but when they go wrong, it’s still the staff who are to blame and suffer the consequences, while those who made the poor decisions invariably have a bright future.

IJ: Do you think there is any real chance KU will close down in 2019? What evidence points to this?

KD: I suspect that significant parts of it will close, though the university may remain in a much reduced, regurgitated form. The evidence is in the fact that management is implementing brutal downsizing via Plan2020 and other ‘radical’ changes, yet is still doing poorly in terms of admissions and rankings. They are clearly flailing. So they announced the History department will close, then told demoralised History staff that the decision would be suspended until May – as if they haven’t yet made up their mind. They have announced the merger of FASS and the Business School on the spurious grounds that the two faculties have complementary courses. All these changes are ill-thought-through and just create uncertaintly and demoralisation, without solving the problems – hence accelerating the very decline they are supposed to be halting. They first extended the competencies of FASS Dean Simon Morgan Wortham to implement Plan2020 across the universities, then realised he was a liability because of his close association with McQuillan and apparent involvement in his corrupt activities, and have decided he has to go by this summer. SMT members are constantly coming and going – what kind of transition can be successful in these circumstances ?

IJ: What do you want to say to KU students who are not aware of all these changes and “aggressive management” but still are suffering under it?

KD: Try to complete your degrees as quickly as possible and get out before the whole thing comes crashing down. Bear in mind that any feedback you give may be used by management as an excuse to close your department or school or radically alter your course, and that you may end up paying the price. How will it be for History students, completing their degrees while all the staff teaching them are in the process of being made redundant, or fear they might be ? What sort of learning environment will that make ? The same for Politics – they got rid of four full-time staff last year, with all the disruption that caused – Master’s students suddenly finding they needed to change dissertation supervisors a few weeks before their submission deadlines, etc. Yet Politics student applications remain very poor, so we can expect more disrupting changes, if not the whole department’s closure. Nobody who actually knows what is going on would want to apply to study here, because you could find your department being closed in the middle of your degree !

IJ: Is there anything students can do? What would that be?

KD: Students should remember that radical changes, even in the unlikely event that they are well thought through, will only cause disruption for you in the short term. You do not want to be taught by staff who are in the process of being made redundant, or fear they might be, as they will be prioritising finding new jobs or trying to salvage their lives, rather than your teaching and welfare. Write to the vice-chancellor, SMT and board of governors telling them you want to keep your department and teaching staff as they are. Tell them NOT to make redundant your teachers and supervisors. Name names of those staff you want to keep.

Vice-Chancellor Steven Spier can be reached at s.spier@kingston.ac.uk

IJ: Is there anything The River can do? What would that be?

KD: Keep on investigating and bringing management bullying, incompetence and corruption to light. Try to interview staff, solicit their concerns and publicise their grievances. Make sure any impending ‘radical’ changes that hurt students and staff will be widely publicised, so they can be resisted.

 

Martin McQuillan’s embezzlement of £200,000 of research money hushed up by the Kingston University SMT

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Last July saw the surprise resignation of Martin McQuillan, Kingston University‘s ‘Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation’, previously widely seen as one of the most powerful figures in the university. This was allegedly for ‘personal reasons’, according to the announcement that appeared briefly on the university website, and the university ‘wished him well’, but there was no expression of thanks for his years of service. McQuillan did not leave to assume a new post elsewhere, instead joining the swelling ranks of Britain’s academic unemployed. He has since reinvented himself as ‘editor’ of ‘HE’, the online publication of an obscure outfit called ‘*Research‘ – a minor academic advertising service with little more than two thousand Twitter followers. This was quite a fall for a man notorious for his extreme ambition, who joked publicly about playing ‘Vice-Chancellor retirement bingo’.

The real reasons for McQuillan’s abrupt departure were nevertheless spread by word of mouth between Kingston University staff, eventually finding their way onto the Kingston University Dissenter’s Blog, a widely read blog run by a Kingston staff member, that ‘highlights aggressive management at Kingston and other UK universities’. McQuillan had been pushed out because he was found to have been embezzling large amounts of research money – apparently in the region of £200,000. As Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), McQuillan’s corrupt carryings on had been detected by some, including the late Christine Bradley, FASS finance officer, and by Professor Philip Spencer, Associate Dean of FASS. Yet Bradley was sacked by McQuillan while Spencer was pushed into early retirement (McQuillan did not attend his leaving party). When the Senior Management Team (SMT) finally discovered his criminal activities, however, instead of reporting him to the police as a law-abiding university would have done, they let him go quietly, with both parties signing a non-disclosure agreement.

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The cover-up was apparently done under the auspices of Kingston’s vice-chancellor, Steven Spier, who was apparently quite ready to conceal from the public the criminal theft of its money, just to save the SMT a bit of embarrassment. The SMT could not legitimately claim that it had had no inkling of his corrupt activities; at least one member of staff had reported to them that McQuillan had attempted to bribe him, but received no response. McQuillan was also rumoured to have fled another scandal at his previous post at the University of Leeds. He was roundly disliked by FASS staff for his bullying and his contemptuous treatment of them, and for being generally unwilling to meet with them if he could at all help it, or even turn up for work on campus (he had promised at the time of his appointment as dean of FASS to relocate from Manchester, but failed to keep his promise, and generally worked from his home there).

McQuillan was, in short, a symptom of, rather than the exception to, the behaviour of the SMT at Kingston. His malign influence over the declining, crisis-ridden university continues in the form of his close friend and sidekick, Simon Morgan Wortham. McQuillan and Morgan Wortham have had a relationship going back many years; both purveyors of the same pretentious postmodernist pseudo-scholarship, they edited volumes together; thanked each other in acknowledgements; and established together their own autonomous little fiefdom within Kingston University: the privileged and unaccountable ‘London Graduate School‘, on whose management board McQuillan still appears. McQuillan stayed at Morgan Wortham’s home while he was settling in as Dean of FASS.

When McQuillan played his cynical rankings game of refusing to enter departments for the last Research Excellence Framework (REF) that hadn’t scored highly enough in the mock exercise, he left it to slimy, insincere Morgan Wortham to present the policy to the outraged FASS staff and pretend to listen to their concerns before ignoring them. When McQuillan was promoted to Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation, he appointed Morgan Wortham Dean of FASS in his place – with no consultation with FASS staff or open competition. As one Kingston insider noted,  ‘It smacked of a North Korean-style dynastic handover rather than a modern Uni.’ Yet although greatly tainted by his association with McQuillan, of whose criminal activities he was surely aware, Morgan Wortham has actually been promoted since the departure of the former. He is now in charge of the university-wide implementation of ‘Plan2020‘ – the SMT’s brutal policy of downsizing and redundancies, with the aim of turning the university into little more than a factory churning out substandard degrees for students with the money to pay, but unable to get a place anywhere better.

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Morgan Wortham’s promotion was not a reflection of any managerial aptitude on his part. As a result of his and McQuillan’s incompetence at the head of FASS, the Department of Politics fell to the very bottom of the Guardian league table last year. The policy of forcing older staff into early retirement and not replacing them took its toll, but this didn’t stop management pretending the atrocious Staff Student Ratio reported by the Guardian was the result of a calculation error. The Department of History was not allowed to recruit undergraduates this year or replace departing staff, suggesting it may be for the axe – though no credible university lacks a history department. For the Department of Economics, FASS overfulfilled its Plan2020 purge target and drove out more experienced staff than they needed to; having spent a fortune on Voluntary Early Pension packages, they may now need to recruit again. KU’s celebrity Economics professor Steve Keen has announced publicly he’s retiring because the university has become an ‘aimless, money-grubbing exploiter of students’.

Meanwhile, after making his contribution to the destruction of a once-respectable university and stealing a large amount of taxpayer’s money, McQuillan is trying to reinvent himself. He chaired a fringe meeting on Higher Education reform at the 2017 Conservative Party Conference in Manchester on 2 October at the Stanley Livingstone Suite at the Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotel, Manchester, alongside the National Union of Students’ Shakira Martin and Mark Leach, director of WonkHE, for which McQuillan also works. McQuillan has also become a contributor to The Guardian on topics related to higher education, where he poses as progressive and left-wing – in stark contrast to his aggressive and bullying managerial methods while at Kingston. For these people, it’s all about presentation.

Those wishing to know Kingston University’s official line on this matter should write to Vice-Chancellor Steven Spier at s.spier@kingston.ac.uk.