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 Dissenter‘. However, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.