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From the Chair

Letter from the Chair - June 2018

When I was elected to Chair a year ago we were already in the early stages of what we anticipated to be a difficult few years. As you will know, in 2012 the government announced the removal of subsidies from universities in England and, as these bit deeper with the end of transitional arrangements, the cost of studying became impossible to either reach or justify for many students. This was particularly devastating in the case of the OU where so many students studied out of interest and enjoyment compared to other universities where most studied towards career goals. Consequently the university reported a 30% fall in student numbers between 2012 and 2017. This percentage was even higher in Psychology, the largest student group in the university. Along with the introduction of the new degree structure that essentially removed exams from the psychology degree (only two courses, DE200 and DD317, now have exams), this had a direct and almost catastrophic effect on OUPS, which had traditionally made most of its income from exam revision weekends. We saw an immediate and savage drop in numbers at all our module-related events.

Previous committees, anticipating this decline in numbers and hence income, had built up a reserve fund to help smooth this out, and as planned we drew on this to fill this gap again this year. However our financial performance was quite a bit better than we had anticipated in that the loss we made was less than we had forecast. Our costs are relatively fixed; for example accommodation costs are largely out of our control and we can only reduce the numbers of tutors or speakers so far without compromising quality. This means the cost-per-head of our events depends on the numbers of people we can attract. So this “loss” is simply the difference between what it cost OUPS for each person who attended our events and what we charged them to come along. 

We also put a lot of effort into reviewing and reducing our costs, and re-thinking the kind of events that we offer in order to increase attendance. Although numbers at module-related events have declined, we see much more interest in our conferences and seminars and have offered more of these than ever before. While it is still an enormously challenging time, we seem to be seeing some light at the end of the tunnel now.

Financial review

As a committee we carried out a detailed review of our financial situation with the aim of making significant savings without compromising the service we give our members. This has included reducing committee attendance for our events, removing the costs of printing and delivery for our event materials through our Paperless programme, reviewing the costs and locations of our regional events and for the first time, gaining financial support from the OU itself. This has included agreement in principle for OUPS to use OU premises without charge to host events as well as direct financial contributions. 

We have also trialled a number of new payment systems to test whether being able to spread the cost of our weekends over a number of payments rather than pay in full would make it easier for people to budget and hence increase bookings. However the OUPS Credits savings scheme attracted zero deposits over twelve months so we withdrew it to remove the maintenance overhead, and OUPS PayPlan, despite its simplicity (send our standing order form to your bank six months in advance and then just turn up in Warwick) has only been used by a small number of attendees. However we’ll continue trialling OUPS PayPlan up to May 2019 before deciding on its fate.

In contrast the ability to pay online by credit and debit card that we introduced in January now accounts for more revenue than all other methods combined, and has reduced the cost of taking card payments by phone substantially. Our analysis shows that the vast majority of bookings for most events are in the month immediately beforehand, so this might explain why spreading payments is not as widespread a problem as suggested. 

Faculty liaison

As a priority this year we created an OUPS Faculty Liaison team, headed by Abi Robbins, to build on the excellent work that Abi has done over the past years in building awareness of OUPS within the OU and making contacts in the School of Psychology. We sometimes hear from students in their final year who wish they’d heard of OUPS in their first one, so it seemed that we were not reaching as many students as we could. In the first of our meetings with the department heads last year they estimated that they had around 19,000 registered psychology students, so in fact with 700 members we were visible to less than 5% of the cohort ! Years ago the University used to include an OUPS flier in each box of books sent to students at the beginning of each psychology course, and it was clear that the University could do much to promote OUPS to students now, but we needed to demonstrate that working with us would be in their interest too, and that we were aligned with their values and ethos.

The team has now rebuilt a positive working relationship with the Heads of the OU School of Psychology, who are now committed to promoting OUPS to all new students and to helping us understand their plans and the content of future modules, which helps us build events to support these. We are seeing rising numbers of students who tell us in post-event feedback that they heard of OUPS through the module websites and forums, and we are holding events that are jointly-funded between OUPS and the OU, which we aim to make cheaper or even free to students where possible. We held our latest planning session with the faculty team in mid-May and have some exciting plans for the coming year (watch this space !).

With direct faculty input we are also better able to plan the dates of our events so that they offer topics relevant to the stage of the module that students have reached, and are less likely to conflict with coursework or dayschools.

Without this close faculty engagement, OUPS will quickly become unable to function effectively, and we look forward to further collaboration in the coming years.

Governance

On a different front, we started the first significant overhaul of OUPS governance in many years, reviewing our Constitution and putting forward the first of a number of amendments for approval at the AGM. We also introduced codes of conduct for our society and policies for equality, diversity and complaints management. However there is still quite a bit of work to do in this area and we’ll continue to do this in the coming year.

We also completed a six-month programme of work to ensure that our data protection and information security was ready for the introduction of the new GDPR data protection regulation in May 2018. We reviewed all of our manual and systems business processes and by April had made the changes necessary to ensure that all personal information is treated confidentially, responsibly and securely.

Regional structure

The current regional structure is idealistic but not fit for purpose as it relies completely on dedicated individuals to establish and keep a region open. We’ve been exceptionally lucky in the past with strong regional teams in the North, in London, Cambridge and in the South/South East. However while the number of members in London means we've been able to replace committee members who move on relatively easily, in other parts it’s been really difficult and "no committee" in most regions has meant "no events" there either.

So we are slowly changing this but need to accelerate - there’s no point in having a structure that actively prevents us holding regional events.

We are quite a way through the planning of an event in Scotland for the first time in many years, and have also held events in London, Cambridge and Brighton recently.

We’ve held our first event in partnership with the OU (London Postgraduate Seminar) and have a second arranged to run in parallel with our “Thinking of Postgrad” weekend in Warwick September. This will be a Research Showcase featuring a number of the research team at the OU presenting on their work. We’re also discussing a number of approaches with the OU for bringing events to new parts of the UK.

Finally ...

I have found the current committee to be a great team who I enjoy working with very much and would like to thank them for their energy and effort this year. Without volunteers (and they are all volunteers with the sole exception of our dedicated Business Administrator, Irene), OUPS could not function. I welcome the opportunity to continue our work together to keep OUPS strong and relevant.

Sadly after many years on the OUPS committee, our Vice Chair, Alan Pechey, has had to unexpectedly withdraw from the committee, though he will continue to be a valued part of OUPS through chairing the Cambridge regional team and, as one of our tutors, giving attendees at our regional and national events the benefit of his knowledge and experience. The committee has elected Graham Edgar to the role of Vice Chair, and I look forward to working with Graham for the rest of the year ahead. I would like to thank Alan for everything he has done for OUPS and to welcome Graham into his new role.

I’d also like to thank all our volunteers who helped arrange and run our regional events, and those who are helping us investigate new events in new regions - please keep those thinking caps on and send all ideas through to Faye our Regional Representative.

And last but not least, I would like to thank all of you who have supported us over the year by coming to our events, engaging with our Facebook pages, and taking the time to send us your feedback and to tell us how much you’ve enjoyed OUPS - you make it all worthwhile :)

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Letter from the Chair - November 2017

Well it’s just over halfway through my year as Chair of OUPS but in ways it feels like a lifetime! I knew that I was taking up the position at a turbulent time, and I haven’t found anything to contradict my first impressions, but I think we’re making steady progress on all fronts.

As we reported at our AGM, OUPS is facing challenging times. We have been sustained for many years by the demand for our revision weekends - I was one of thousands of OU psychology students who would start to think about booking onto a revision weekend as soon as I started any of the big mandatory modules in the days of exams. However, three primary factors - affordability, relevance and visibility - have resulted in fewer students supporting our events. The net result as far as OUPS is concerned is that we have much lower attendance at our study-related events, which now generally run at a loss.

The first of these is a consequence of the removal of government subsidies for higher education, with the resulting tripling of university fees leaving many students less able or less willing to pay for additional support such as our study events. It has also led to an enormous drop in OU student numbers in the past few years, where study for personal growth or just for fun is now out of reach for many of us, which means that OUPS also has a smaller “market” to support.

To address this, we have maintained our prices again this year - now for over seven years - in spite of rising accommodation and venue costs. While this helps today’s students, it depletes our financial reserves, so we have less ability to absorb losses or unforeseen costs and is clearly not something we can continue to do for much longer. To help students spread the cost of events we looked at new ways to pay and launched two of these - OUPS Credits which acts like a piggy-bank into which students can save up over time and OUPS PayPlan which allows the costs of our larger events to be spread across six one-monthly payments. These have taken considerable work but it's great to see that they are slowly gaining support and we hope they help to make our events more affordable.

The second factor contributing to lower numbers at our course-specific revision events is the change in the OU psychology degree, with exams being largely eliminated, to the point where you need only sit two exams to get a psychology degree through the OU. This is very much at odds with most universities: an ex-student I spoke to at one of our recent events mentioned that she had sat 26 exams to achieve her psychology undergraduate degree at one of the traditional UK universities.

We have spent a lot of time this year thinking of alternative events that would be useful and attractive to OU students and that also attract enough attendees to cover the costs of venues, tutors and overheads. We’ve also analysed where to locate our events so that they are convenient to the largest numbers of attendees. To support this work, we conducted a number of surveys in which we canvassed all of our tutors, as well as sending invites to contribute to over 2000 people including tutors, OUPS members, non-members and via Facebook, to anyone who had any interest in helping us solve the conundrum. The results have been very interesting and we will share these along with our conclusions shortly.

Events such as our Conferences and Mental Health workshops have been very well supported, both at national and regional level, and we hope to continue providing and maybe even increasing the number of these. We’ve also spent many hours debating how to reduce the costs of our events to attendees, whether running more one-day or non-residential events might be viable, investigating alternative venues and locations around the country, coming up with ideas for non-revision events and so on. We’re trialling a number of these in the coming months.

Finally, despite the sterling efforts of those OUPS tutors who also work for the OU and who can tell their cluster groups about us, it seems the majority of students are simply not aware of OUPS and it’s always so frustrating to meet final-year students who have just discovered us as they come to the end of their degree journey and wish they’d heard of us five years earlier!

The most obvious way to improve our visibility would seem to be through the OU itself, but in recent years it's been difficult to get consistent support from the University in this way so a lot of effort in the past six months has been focused on building a really strong and positive relationship with the School of Psychology at the OU. This year we created the role of OU Liaison Officer and appointed Abi to formalise the work that she has been doing for a number of years, which has now blossomed into a formal regular working group between OUPS and the Head of Psychology at the OU, the Dean of the school, a number of senior lecturers at the faculty, and senior managers from the Student Support team.

We’ve held three meetings so far at Walton Hall that have surpassed our expectations, and have scheduled quarterly meetings for the rest of the year to continue making progress. Instead of having to rely solely on the effort of friendly tutors to post information on cluster group forums we now also have the faculty on-side, and they’ve worked with us to put a schedule of postings and other communications out right across the academic year via module websites, the new qualification websites that are launching in 2018. We hope that these regular scheduled communications with students and the faculty support for promoting and making OUPS visible to students will help raise our numbers. We are also collaborating on a number of other shared initiatives such as increasing accessibility to OUPS events through online material, regional roadshow events etc.

Away from the business side, the committee has had a lot of work to do to address gaps in our governance. Where we were able to run OUPS in the past through shared aims and values, these were often undocumented. Even though the vast majority of our members have little or no interest in whether we have policies and procedures, we have a responsibility as a professional organisation and a registered charity to ensure that we run ourselves to the highest standards so we took the opportunity to review these, generate new ones where needed and publish them on our website. We are also in the process of reviewing our Constitution with a view to presenting a number of amendments to our members at the next AGM.

Finally we've noticed over the last year that the cost of printing handouts for our events has increased, and also that even though we've reduced the number of copies we print there seem to be more left over after each event as time goes on. In addition we are often asked if we can make handouts available online. I’m delighted to say that our Secretary, Amada, who has been championing a more environmental approach has just launched a Paperless trial in the London, South and South East regions. For events in these regions we will email any relevant handouts to all registered attendees, either in advance so that those who need printed versions have plenty of time to organise these, or shortly after the event if the tutor has decided that this is more appropriate for their lecture. We'd like to thank our tutors for working to ensure that their presentations are copyright-free and for making them available in this way. And in advance, we'd like to thank all of you who support us in actively contributing toward a paperless environment and saving a few trees along the way.

So it’s been a hugely busy six months, and there’s no sign that the next six will bring any less work. I’d like to say how much I appreciate the enormous amount of work that everyone on the national committee and in the regional committees puts into OUPS - there isn’t the slightest doubt that without this the society would just vanish. And I’d also like to say thanks to all of you who come along to our events, and who tell us how much you value them - without you none of it would be worthwhile.

Until next time :)

David

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