Tales of the Riverbank – October

Dear Staff (those still here)

The new academic year has started and the University is full of staff. Depressed, unenthusiastic lecturers were crowding into “Jobseekers Fayre”; they are looking forward to a University experience different to Kingston, and they hope that something, anything, brings them opportunities and choices in life. They are also anxious, uncertain about how they will be treated, their ability and the pressure of their work. It is up to me to ensure that this continues. Resigning could be the best decision they ever make.

The Donor Event was held at Roehampton Vale last weekend. This is our thank you to those who support the Annual VC Benevolent Fund, it boosts my income well. Former students, whose time at Kingston was spent in better days, return to wonder what happened; our current students from diverse backgrounds, who might not have been able to study if it had not been for Kingston, and in future won’t be able to if the shrinkage continues; staff showing their stress through too much teaching and research. Kingston is a very stressful place.

There is good news. Over the summer we recruited to our student number target. That means that we do not need to make urgent adjustments to our threats. Making our target when we had been very concerned is a great relief to the many dedicated staff – won’t stop me from giving them a hard time though. We have been shortlisted for the Times Higher Awards for Entrepreneurship and for Widening Participation (no, really!) – that should help me show off a bit more.

However, we cannot afford to be complacent.  Reading the recent University league tables has been a painful experience. Our performance for overall student satisfaction is dismal, 121st out of 123 in the “Murdoch University Guide”. Whilst University level issues such as incompetent timetabling – me again! – the failure to deliver summer graduations and the reorganisation of academic demotion had an impact, it is clear that the key factor is around my local and personal interactions. Yes, I’m still here!

This is not just about league table position – it is ultimately about survival as the sort of University we want to be – neoliberal, academically importunate, destructive to staff morale. We may have made our targets, but I made it difficult. We are finding it hard to recruit students even though the University has shrunk and our numbers are fewer – no surprises there then. We have been unable to push up tariffs as I (though no one else) wished, because we cannot attract the applicants. In short, my madcap schemes are falling apart. The reasons are simple, why go to a low ranking University where the VC’s management is the cause? If we cannot attract students we either sack the staff or me. No prizes for guessing which option I will go for.

Bluntly, reputation means applicants, means admissions, means income, means jobs, means get rid of the management problem. No way Jose!

Parts of the University do very well and have excellent student satisfaction and academic performance and they compete successfully against the best within a radius of one mile.  They do well despite everything I do to prevent it. We do not feel like a University that is 121st out of 123 – we didn’t used to be – but I will continue to do my best to keep us there.

I am meeting with those parts of the University which have done particularly poorly in the National Student Survey and putting the frigheners on them. So far I have been impressed by the commitment to improve of those I have spoken with (nothing like a show of force to generate a bit of commitment). I have also heard about the barriers to change. Some of the barriers are institutional level things that we never get right – simpler processes, better timetabling, improved buildings and IT. However the key issue comes down to how students are treated in their day-to-day interactions. There may be people who honestly feel that the focus on students is wrong, that feedback does not matter. If that is the case Kingston may not be the right place for them to work (hint: get out before you’re pushed).

I am not gloomy – not on my salary – this is a university that does great things for most of its students, despite my best efforts. The most powerful influence on an organisation is its culture. By culture I mean the way I treat you all and the effect that has on everyone.  We have to become a culture which is no longer tolerant of poor performance that is damaging our future, except of course mine – you can’t do anything about that.

There is much more going on in the University that I don’t care about, there are many wonderful things going on that I ignore and Kingston is full of people doing great things, but they are being held back by me. However the reputation of the University is so important that I have decided to ignore everything else, especially staff morale. Let’s make this the year of the downturn.

[Insert the usual flannel here.] Do let me know if you have any comments or suggestions.



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