Why Kingston will never be a top research university

Under Clueless Julius, Kingston got ideas above its station. Not content with undermining the University’s core strength, which is to offer higher education to those otherwise excluded — the students who miss the HE boat through policies like the Tory’s proposed grammar school scheme — he entertained fantasies of Kingston reaching the research capabilities of the redbricks.

Staffspace often proclaims stories of Kingston staff’s glamorous ventures. This blog’s attention has recently been caught by three of these. In no particular order of unimportance, they are the professor who spent a year being David Bowie; a “research” project into the use of drones for crowd security; and an appearance on a reality “art” TV programme. Now this is not to criticise any of the staff involved in these activities. We should be able to pursue our own scholarly (and not so scholarly) interests and practice; and the original polys were always more applied. But so often we are not talking about research and scholarship likely to lead to an original contribution to knowledge and understanding in the subject, or by any means likely to make it into the “highly cited journals” or satisfy the other metrics the SMT constantly bangs on about. Yes, there are pockets of this level of work around the University, but not on the scale of the old institutions with a long research reputation. If there were, Kingston would not brag about this headline-catching kind of thing.

The fact is academics focused on a high-level research career avoid places like Kingston if they can. We have broader academics who have a genuine interest in teaching; they don’t treat it as something that stands in the way of research. You won’t hear Kingston lecturers say they hate teaching, as some academics do elsewhere.

Yet Queasy McQuillan, who always looks as though he’s just swallowed something unpleasant, persists with this misguided belief. What he hasn’t worked out is that you cannot get people to do creative and original things with his ugly threatening mug looming over their shoulder. Worried for our jobs, we struggle to work at all, thus undermining teaching as well as research.

It’s not as though the SMT is populated with high-flying researchers setting an example to us all. Dadoo Ron Tuninga’s very limited collection (a single journal paper on the citation databases) hardly qualifies him for his professorial position, never mind his incompetence as a manager. Queasy manages a couple of pages-worth of essays (cited zero times). The majority of our leaders don’t match up to the researchers of the old universities; they would not work at Kingston otherwise — other than as a pre-retirement home (a nice pension boost for the likes of SEC’s, Mike ‘The Axe’ Sutcliffe). So who are they to demand we become a research university? They live in the clouds of the cuckoo-clock land admired by Spier, who incidentally has only a handful of publications himself (also cited zero times). And yet these people demand publications and international impact from the grade 10 staff!

Shaw’s dig at teachers, often misquoted (“He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches”) is surely ripe for fresh expression — He who can, does; he who cannot oppresses. This encapsulates the type of individual that makes up Kingston’s management. Not especially competent at research themselves, and grossly incompetent at management, they make unreasonable demands on the staff they are supposed to be supporting and motivating. Far from encouraging good research, they bear down on us. Like so many arrogant types of very modest abilities, they adopt a vindictive and oppressive attitude towards others — the attitude of the bully.

One might speculate that Kingston could perhaps become a research university in time. That would require the conditions that allowed the old universities to thrive: a long stable period through which academics were supported and allowed to get on with it, secure in their posts, without fear of the sack from some petty manager running a checklist over them. That’s not going to happen with Kingston’s leadership, fixated on cuts to staff and destroying any last vestiges of cooperation as we are forced to compete against one another. That’s even happening at the old universities now, so what hope for Kingston?

What do the Governors make of all this? Well, they don’t make anything of it. Like the bankers, the carrot of huge “research profits” will, they no doubt reason, reflect well on their tenure. Any blustering VC talking big will go down well with them. But we know what happened to the banks. There the parallel ends: Kingston is not too big to fail.

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