Unconditional Offers

Bob stretched and looked around. He looked at his watch. Two o’clock. He’d managed to get a surprising amount done. Maybe open plan offices weren’t so bad after all. Ajay was quiet, and had even made him a cup of drinkable coffee earlier in the day. He had been aware of other people outside of their little pod, but nothing had really disturbed him. Not bad.

He stood up. “Coffee, Ajay?”

“Sure. Black, one sugar, please.”

Bob went through into the kitchen. Nobody looked up as he passed their pods. Fair enough. It wasn’t as though they’d been in and out of each other’s offices in the old building. Maybe tuning out was the best way to cope with life in the pods.

When he walked back through to his pod, Vanessa and Nawaz had returned. They were whispering loudly to each other. Bob passed a mug to Ajay, and cleared his throat. “Hello…” he paused. It wasn’t really appropriate to say ‘ladies’, was it? “…colleagues,” that was better, “Nice to see you again, and find out that we’re neighbours.”

They both looked up, and actually seemed quite pleased to see him. “Hi, Bob,” said Nawaz. “Good to have you back.”

“Thanks. What’s new?” It was just a social question. If anything had been new, he was pretty sure that Martin would have sent several emails round the department by now, explaining why nobody should go along with it.

They looked at each other.

“You won’t believe this.” Vanessa leaned towards him and looked conspiratorial.

Bob sat down and wheeled his desk chair closer to the women. Ajay, catching the scent of a break from the routine, did the same.

“We’ve just got back from an outreach visit to La Sainte Union college.”

“Oh yes?” Bob wondered what could be so surprising. It seemed an unlikely place for gossip to emerge.

“The head of sixth form took us to one side. She asked us if we were prepared to negotiate over our offers for this year.”

“But surely they’ve already gone out?”

“Yes, of course, but apparently some other places have been making unconditional offers, and she said she might be tempted to stop recommending us if we didn’t do the same.”

“Unconditional offers? We’ve always done that.”  Bob wondered what all of the fuss was about.

“Not before people have done their A levels, we haven’t.”

“Well, no, of course not…” Bob tailed off. “You mean, just saying students can come, whatever their results? Even if they fail?”

Nawaz nodded vigorously. “Yep. Well. That sounds weird. Maybe they have to get Es. I don’t know. Anyway, the point is that she was basically trying to blackmail us into changing our offers.”

“We can’t do that, can we?” Vanessa sounded as though she was genuinely asking him for a deciding opinion.

Bob tried not to look surprised at the tone of her voice. Was that what responsibility for the student experience meant? Being expected to offer decisive opinions on anything which might affect students? Actually, he did have some thoughts on this, having handled admissions for the University College of North Burston for a couple of years. “Um.  It doesn’t seem very wise to me. I thought we were trying to increase the number of UCAS points we expected from students. It’s a league table indicator. And if they haven’t passed, how will they have the basic knowledge they need to start on the degree?”

“No, I mean, we can’t change offers we’ve already put out, can we?”

“No, no, not till Clearing, anyway, but that’s not the point, is it? We’ve got to think about standards. And the student experience.”

Vanessa looked disappointed. “That’s what I thought. So that’s five students, maybe more, that we’re going to lose. We always get students from there.”

“Well, maybe that would be for the best. Come on, we don’t want to join the race to the bottom, do we?”

Nawaz sighed. “Maybe not. But what if everyone else does it, and we’re the only ones holding out for BBB? And how could it be the race to the bottom, if the University of Burston is doing it?”

“They are? Really? God.” He lapsed into silence for a few seconds. “I see your point. But still…don’t we have other things to offer?” He frowned.

The others said nothing. The four of them sat, with their wheeled chairs pulled together in a pod pow-wow, trying to think what it was that was distinctive about Burston Central. Proximity was a big draw, and the fact that they didn’t ask for such high grades as the University of Burston. If both of those factors had been removed, it was hard to say what would be the reason for coming to their department.

As if by common accord, they spun on their chairs and looked hard at their respective screens. And as if by magic, an email alert flashed up in the bottom corner of each one.

To: allstaff@burstu.ac.uk

From: Justin Marks, Head of Campus Communications

Subject: Burston Central leads the way with admissions

Once again, Burston Central is innovating. You may have heard about some Russell Group universities making unconditional offers to certain students who’ve been predicted to get particularly high grades. I’m pleased to announce that the University Executive Group has agreed a special Burston Central approach to admissions which will position us perfectly in the new market. We know that predicted grades aren’t always that reliable, so we’ve decided to use another measure to decide whether to make an unconditional offer: the number of interesting extra-curricular activities partaken by the applicant. We’re looking for students with a wide range of interests! This should boost the number of applications AND bring us students who already have a headstart on their employability skills. It’s a win-win for BC.


Bob pushed his chair back slowly, as if the screen was throwing out a repulsive force field. The email made absolutely no sense. Of all the weird things he’d seen at Burston Central, this had to be the least comprehensible. He turned, almost in synchronisation with the three others. They formed a circle and looked at each other. Nobody spoke.

Bob opened his mouth. No sound came out. He closed it again.

Four pings signalled the arrival of another all-staff email. In unison, they each turned back to their own computers.

To: allstaff@burstu.ac.uk

From: Janice Burton, Vice Chancellor

Subject: Unconditional Offers

Please disregard the previous all-staff email, sent by Mr Marks. This was sent accidentally while Mr Marks was testing a new computerised press release writing tool. I just want to make it clear that with my new drive on standards, we will be increasing the value of our offers, rather than removing them.

Bob looked at his watch. It was only 3.30. He swivelled towards the others again and cleared his throat. They spun in unison.

“Pub?” Bob didn’t think he’d ever invited his colleagues out for a drink before – except Sheila, and she was different.

Without saying a word, the other three shut down their computers, gathered up their bags, and stood up. They left the office in silence.

Bob smiled as he held the door for the others. His pod had bonded.

New role, new responsibilities.

By eight o’clock, Bob had packed away his stuff and managed to force the empty box into the recycling container in the kitchen. He hadn’t seen anyone else yet, though he’d heard the main door open and shut a couple of times. The strange arrangement of dividers, boxing everyone into their little pods of four, meant that you had to get up to see what was happening elsewhere in the office. In contrast, the four desks did feel rather close together, as if you’d know too much about what was happening in the area. He drew his elbows in involuntarily.

He had popped in to see the office previously, but it had been Easter vacation, and hardly anyone had been around,. He’d forgotten to ask who else was in his group of four. He hoped one of them wasn’t Martin. Not that he had anything against Martin. It was just that it had been hard enough getting any work done when the two of them shared a reasonably-sized office.

He sighed at the thought. He knew Martin meant well. And it was vital that somebody stood up for people’s rights. It was just that he didn’t always think that Martin picked the most important things to stand up for.

At least he’d missed the election buildup, if not Martin’s analysis of the fallout.

Bob plugged in his laptop and started to look at the university policies on student experience. He wasn’t really sure what his new role was going to be. The new head of department had been rather vague about it. “All the departments are having an academic lead for Student Experience” he’d said, “You can talk to the woman in Marketing and PR about it, she’ll tell you where things are up to, um, what’s her name, now…”

Bob had later found her name, and emailed her, but she hadn’t replied.

Trouble was, there wasn’t any actual named university policy on ‘student experience’. And pretty much every other policy probably had some impact on student experience, so you’d have to fit in with all of them. What the hell was the student experience, anyway? He thought he’d understood it when he’d been offered the job, but now he couldn’t get a grip on any part of the concept. Where to start? He began to doodle a kind of mind map.

Bob was surprised, a while later, to be disturbed by a loud throat -clearing just behind him. He turned round to see one of his ex-students standing at the next desk. For a moment, Bob wondered how he’d got into the office. Then he put the face and the name together. Ajay. Of course. He’d spoken to him on the phone, when Ajay was covering his teaching while he was on secondment, but not seen him for years.

“Hi, Bob. Sorry if I disturbed you. I just wanted to say hello, and welcome back.”

Bob smiled. “Ajay. Hi. Good to see you. I didn’t hear you coming in.”

“You seemed to be quite absorbed. I wasn’t sure whether to disturb you”

“Oh. Well, that’s good. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to work in here. But it looks as though I might!”

“It’s pretty quiet today. Everyone’s marking at home, I think. Anyway, I’ll let you get on. Just thought I’d say hello. I’m just next to you, here.”

Ajay sat down at the next desk. There was about a metre between their chairs.

Bob leaned over. “Great. It’s good to see you again. And thanks for holding the fort while I was away.”

Ajay smiled shyly. “No problem. I enjoyed it. Bit of a baptism of fire, but it’s been interesting.”

“I heard they’d managed to keep you on. Glad me coming back hasn’t put you out of a job.”

“Well. It’s still only temporary. No permanent posts unless you’ve got a PhD.”

Bob made a sign of commiseration. There weren’t too many experienced accountants who could teach on the professional courses and who had a PhD. He was glad he’d been appointed before the new rules came in. “Are you going to do one?”

Ajay sighed. “I guess so. I’ve got to finish the PGCHE first.”

Bob gave a wry grin. “Don’t tell me. You’re not enjoying the reflective portfolio.”

“Good guess.” Ajay paused. “I don’t know why. I suppose we’re just trained to record the facts, in accountancy. I can’t see how what I think about my teaching is particularly relevant to anyone except me.”

Bob grinned more widely. “You’re bringing back painful memories! I did manage to pass it, though. Tell you what, I’ll bring you mine to have a look at.”

“Would you? Thanks, Bob. It’s due in a month or so, and I just don’t know where to start.”

Bob laughed at that. “Wasn’t the point of the portfolio that you were filling it in all year?”

“Well, I’ve been keeping my lesson plans and stuff…but I don’t really know what else is needed.”

“God, don’t look at me, I haven’t even thought about any of that stuff since I finished it.” Bob wondered if that was really true. Surely something had gone in? Nothing came to mind. He shrugged. “OK, I’ll try to remember it tomorrow.”

Bob looked behind them. “So, who usually sits over here?”

“Vanessa and Nawaz. They’re both part-time. I don’t see much of them.”

Bob tried not to look pleased. “Oh. I’m so used to sharing with Martin, I assumed he’d be in this pod.”

Ajay looked a bit uncomfortable. “Um. He’s got a desk by the window, in the corner. He was just on the other side, actually, but, um, he ended up moving.”

Bob decided not to ask more questions. Martin could definitely be relied on to tell the story from his own special perspective. “Well, it’s good to be sitting next to you, Ajay. I’d better get back to this.” He waved vaguely towards at his desk.

They smiled at each other and returned to their invisible bubbles.

Bob found that he hadn’t got the slightest idea what he’d meant by any of the scrawls in front of him. He scrunched up the paper and prepared to start again. Student experience. Student experience in accountancy. Students, experienced in accountancy study. Students’ experiences aggregated into an amorphous blob. He sighed.

Was there any chance of anyone getting responsibility for the staff experience?

Back in the Bosom

The glass lift shot up to the sixth floor. Bob didn’t even have time to gape at the terrifying drop into the atrium before he was stepping out of the lift, putting his box down, and fumbling in his pocket for the floor plan which showed him how to get to his new office. He looked around him. This new building was a lot nicer than the old tower block, but it was a bit confusing. Everything was grey, with miniscule little labels on the doors, as though the architect had thrown a tantrum about spoiling the lines or offering any kind of contrasting colours for the signage. Never mind thinking about the needs of middle-aged academics who wore bifocals, and needed large fonts. He wondered idly if architects were subject to the Disability Discrimination Act.

The old building, 1960s public architecture at its most functional, had just had long corridors down the middle of a very long, tall rectangle, with doors to the left or right. Here, there was a tessellated arrangement of glass-fronted rooms, moving away from the central atrium. He had been in before, to see where his office was, but he’d been walking with a colleague, and hadn’t really registered the route. He consulted his map. He should turn left from the lift, then right, then left again, then his office door should be on the right. Picking up the box, he set off. Left, right, left, right.

Actually, it was pretty straightforward. He wondered what his colleagues had been complaining about in the plethora of angry emails which followed the official moving-in to the new building. Finding the office, loathing the open plan arrangement, no space for all their stuff, the office was too hot, the office was too cold, the office was inaccessible to students…he had been expecting the worst. He put the box down again and swiped his ID card through the reader next to the door. He heard the lock click, slightly to his surprise – he hadn’t really expected ‘the system’ to be updated with his details yet, but maybe it had never actually registered his secondment. More likely. Opening the door, he stuck his foot in it while he turned to pick up the box. The large office was also confusing, with a lot of room dividers and bookcases separating the desks, giving an illusion of privacy. He tracked around for a couple of minutes until he recognised the area he’d been allocated.

Dumping the box on the empty desk, he sat down and looked at the blank space divider in front of him. He smiled to himself. Setting up the University College of North Burston had been fun, but he’d known all along it was a whimsical interlude. With the departure of the Deputy Vice Chancellor and the Vice Chancellor who’d championed the idea, plus the imminent removal of Student Number Controls, there was no point in running a sideshow to try to leverage the system. Better to build student numbers back in the university, where, in all honesty, students would get a better deal. Bigger class sizes, yes, but he thought that was balanced the advantages of a permanent staff and support infrastructure, and even some research-led teaching. He had been pretty relieved when his plan to relinquish the students and the premises to Burston FE college, or BUF, as it was now branded, had been accepted. The University had recouped its minimal investment in the project. The second year students had been promised a transfer into the final year at Burston Central if they wanted it, so he’d probably be seeing plenty of them. And on top of that, he’d been promoted to Principal Lecturer for Student Experience in the department. He was quite happy to be back in the Accountancy department.

It was still early, and nobody else was in the office. At least, he didn’t think they were. It was harder to tell than he would have expected. He unpacked his box. He’d brought in four ‘University College of North Burston’ mugs, and he took them to the office kitchen area. A kitchen! After all of the fuss over kettles he’d endured when he shared an office with Martin. There were no kettles in the kitchen, though, just some kind of hidden device which dispensed almost-boiling water, or ice-cold water, if you preferred. He put the mugs on the shelf, wondering if anyone would notice. His foray into the semi-private sector seemed to have gone relatively un-noticed by his colleagues. Even Martin hadn’t said too much about casualisation, privatisation and thin ends of wedges. Well, everyone had their own concerns. He wondered if anyone would notice he was back, or if they’d really noticed he’d been away.

He made a cup of instant coffee and took it back to his desk. Plenty of time to get sorted out before anyone else came in.

Maybe I missed Bob and Sheila, or maybe HE just wasn’t making me cross enough, or i’d run out of daft things to fictionalise, I don’t know. Is there anything more ridiculous than a dormant blog? Why isn’t it just deleted? From an author’s perspective, I can’t understand why anyone still visits it, but oddly, they do (could be some kind of bot checking for updates, of course). This is just a bit of a filler to explain why Bob is back. However, I have a feeling that the teaching REF is going to set me off again…do let me know if you spot any idiocies.