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.
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.
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.