The University, fearful of bad publicity over its latest course cuts, is currently bombarding staff with updates and reassuring messages saying how nice KU really is towards its employees, and how fortunate you all are to be working for such a great workplace: according to the self-anointed ‘Gold Commander’ and his Silver Teamsters, ‘massive improvements’ have been made. This puts staff in a massive dilemma: do they laugh or cry?
Since his appointment as VC, Blandy Spier has made a number of massively ambitious promises to KU’s Board of Governors (BOG) in his Annual ‘VC’s Report’ to the Board. At one point he told the BOG that failure to deliver against Plan 2020 would ‘impact on the future sustainability of the University’. Looking back on it, he’s announced so many ‘improvement’ plans it is beginning to sound like a monthly tradition. The joke among his admin staff is that the latest plan refers to the 22 or more plans we have had since Spier took over. Each new plan is presented as a panacea: adopt this and the University will be saved! Each one has ended in failure, leaving just muddle and misery in its wake. The latest ‘strategic plan’, hilariously labelled as KU22+, again promises much, but will follow the usual pattern and deliver little. The Gold Commander, who occasionally pens his own news releases, has announced that the plan for ‘2022-23 and beyond’, originally launched in March, 2020, ‘at a time when the University had made massive improvements through Plan 2020, the preceding improvement plan’ (yes, his words there), will now have a new + sign added to it. This new ‘plus’ sign, he proclaims grandly, is to ‘symbolise a new phase’, behind which the ‘fundamental aim’ is (he says) to ‘improve academic performance across all domains’ and ‘to define more precisely the level of our ambitions and what it will take to achieve them’. Got that? Sound familiar? Yes, he’s so bereft of ideas he’s even recycling his own words now. It is massively cheesy management speak again, but classic Spier talk.
The BOG initially had high hopes Spiersy’s leadership would be able to ‘save’ the University, shake up its managerial practices and reverse its huge and crippling debts. However, in private, it has slowly dawned on a number of the BOGsters that Spier has proved to be a crushing disappointment, who seems more interested in wasting money on ‘prestige’ building projects than investing in a credible teaching and research strategy for the University. According to those in the know, even the new BOG chair can’t quite believe how Spiersy became VC. Despite his claims, Spiersy has not been regularly present on campus, and has become notorious for delegating difficult decisions to poor old sods like Dave ‘Mac the Knife’ Mackintosh (who is now worn out from all the stress) and, more recently, to another bagman, Prof ‘Handy Andy’ Kent, who has apparently been complaining to his close mates about his ever-growing workload. Watch Handy Andy – he is ambitious, and can’t wait for Spiersy to trip up.
Prior to lockdown, Spiersy disappeared to Hong Kong on a number of occasions, claiming he was on University business to woo more Chinese students – but it emerged he was attending Chinese print-making workshops, mainly for his own pleasure, an idea he’d got from his close pal, former KSA Dean, Colin Rhodes. Rhodes had done the same trick, strongly recommending the workshops to Spiersy. When Rhodes’ own ambitious building plans for Middle Mill were rejected as ‘too expensive’, the pair fell out badly. Conveniently, when ugly rumours emerged about Rhodes’ private life and behaviour, Rhodes-to-nowhere did not wait around to be humiliated by Spier: he quickly left. But as far as Spiersy was concerned, another scandal had been quietly closed down. It was trebles all round.
While a few millions were spent on sprucing up the VC’s new HQ, Holmewood House, University decision-making became increasingly slow and lethargic and lacking in direction, something that did not go unnoticed by certain members of the BOG. In the meantime, the University’s financial position, not helped by a huge and embarrassing overspend on the delayed Town House project, became more and more precarious. Some national newspapers even began to include Kingston on the lists of Universities that were in serious trouble, much to the irritation of certain Governors.
Spiersy placed his faith in dreaming up new ‘Estates Business’ cases to save the day (a former architect, he has always fancied himself as a property wheeler-dealer). Dissenter has been reliably informed that, much to the despair of the Director of Estates and key staff in Estates, the VC placed enormous pressure on the Estates Vision Steering Group to come up with new income-generating ideas and quick fix solutions. Increasing income by reducing costs became the new mantra in all things, including management of the Uni’s property portfolio. The disposal of Kingston Bridge House brought some temporary financial relief, but the VC and his acolytes realised that other parts of the estate could not be disposed of so quickly. Roehampton Vale (a valuable site for potential developers) could not be disposed of before 2022/23, and a plan to dispose of Coombehurst could also not be rushed. Disposing of Coombehurst has been classed as ‘politically sensitive’ by the VC and he warned his SLT not to publicise the disposal plan (but one of them leaked it anyway).
There were further signs of desperation. Water cooler gossip among admin staff early last year revealed that Spiersy had placed massive hope in the University further investing in graduate businesses (it runs this through the ‘Enterprise Circle’, a small bunch of Alumni) (check out Companies House, folks!). It is fantasy economics, and has left some of the SLT and BOG wondering what planet he lives on. Bizarrely, the VC expressed an interest in using KU money (which he seems to view as his own personal spending pot) to acquire nos. 71, 67 and 63 Penrhyn Road, and he even made an offer of £750K to purchase no. 71 (a large 3-storey villa style house). But all this ambitious drive to generate more income has not really impressed the Infrastructure Committee of BOG. If anything, it has further undermined BOG’s confidence in KU’s increasingly battered and beleaguered Gold Commander. The glitter has worn off badly.
Spiersy came under renewed pressure to do something, and fast. Relying on Estates streamlining is not enough: major ‘restructuring’ in other ways is being planned. Deans were instructed in 2020 to come up with ‘restructure’ plans. As staff are now aware, under the convenient cover of the Covid-19 emergency, KU’s Golden Commander and his team of shadowy Silver Shirkers have been quietly hatching a nasty scheme to comprehensively ‘streamline’ staff and courses. It comes after this bunch of overpaid desperados finally realised that ‘Plan 2020’, a previous attempt to ‘turn the University around’, had badly failed, despite the VC’s very public claims that it had met all its objectives. Staff may remember that Plan 2020 was launched with great fanfare 5 years ago by Martin ‘Sleazy’ McQuillan and his worthless sidekick, Simon Wortham-Morgan. Shortly after, Sleazy was caught with his hand in the till and, in a shabby little deal, he was quietly paid off at the insistence of the Board of Governors, to try to avoid bad publicity (he signed a non-disclosure agreement – NDAs have become a favourite tool in KU in recent years).
McQuillan’s sidekick, Morgan-Wortham, who was also investigated, suddenly turned on his sleazy old boss, claiming he did not know what had been going on, even though the pair had been on research and conference trips abroad together, to South America and to Paris. Both had also benefited enormously from the ‘London Graduate School’, a dodgy little operation run by themselves using KU resources but with no transparency (it has since been closed down). Wortham came very close to being sacked, too, but survived the scandal.
Those who read Dissenter will know the story does not stop there. Incredibly, Morgan-Wortham also recently survived yet another scandal. Moron-Worthless, as he is known by staff (and who is the current pro-VC for ‘Strategic Development’), was caught screwing his PA in his University office, but – scandalously – kept his job after the VC intervened to protect him. After being sent on a short period of gardening leave (or research leave as it was called) until the scandal died down, Worthless (he was forced to drop the ‘Morgan’ part of his name by his wife when she found out) has wormed his way back into favour and is said to be one of the main architects of the latest ‘Turnaround’ plan, KU22+.
Staff should read the plan carefully. If you can stomach the glossy main document and the sickly Spiersy-style managerial terminology (which sounds as if its been plagiarised from a poor Business Studies textbook), there are major clues to their thinking. One big clue to what the VC and his gang are hatching can be found in ‘priority number 3’, which states that the plan is ‘to generate sufficient income to invest in our ambitions’ – the planners behind KU22+ then add: ‘We will mitigate risk in a volatile market’ by ‘sustaining a broad range of subject areas’, and ‘increase income by reducing the cost to income ratio’.
The meaning of all this is already becoming clear. Sustaining ‘a range’ of subject areas means, in reality, targeting and axing particular subject areas no longer viewed as ‘profitable’ or meeting the criteria for a ‘business case’, such as Politics, International Relations and Human Rights. But the University remain tellingly silent on what such criteria actually are. No specific details or business plans have been supplied to staff. As we shall reveal in our next blog, the ‘economics’ behind all this is only half the story: sheer prejudice against certain subjects is also playing a role.
As we write, the VC sits on his hands and stays silent, banking on his hope that any controversy or reputational damage will quickly blow over. Members of the SLT remain evasive, frightened of their own shadows, and only respond to the teaching union or student union with vague platitudes or demeaning soundbites. The formal position of KU is that the University ‘does not need’ to consult on course closures, and that staff and students do not understand the world of ‘business’ and markets in HE. So there! Suck it up, plebs.