Letter from the Chair - May 2019
Hi again, after another year in "the chair" !
To recap, last time I wrote OUPS was facing four key problems: financial, product, structure and governance. This time I'd like to give an update on where we've got to in dealing with these.
The first problem we faced was financial: for a number of years we had been simply charging less for our events than they cost us to put on (even when the income from memberships was included), and our overheads were too high for the number of attendees we were attracting. This was a result of having failed to take sufficient account of the impact that removing exams from the OU psychology degree pathway had on our revenues after 2012-13.
Over the last two years we gradually increased our prices to reflect the actual cost of putting on our weekend events. We also reverted to only having the minimum number of committee attend weekends to run them (based on number of attendees) and to only providing accommodation for other committee members at the May weekend in order to avoid the cost of holding a separate event for our AGM and the first ECM after the committee elections.
After 17 years of invaluable service, we took the difficult decision to make the position of Business Administrator redundant, removed post and phone as options for communication and moved our enquiry and support services online. I would like to take the opportunity here to say how much the OUPS committee, along with hundreds of students over those years, appreciate the wonderful work that Irene did for us in that role, and how happy we are that she has agreed to stay on to fill the Student Support Officer aspects of the role. I'm also happy to report that, while I'm sure that the personal service we used to offer was far superior, the online support option appears to be satisfactory, and is much more appropriate to the volume of enquiries we take and the cost of supporting these, which being fully met by volunteers, is zero ...
We also, after much experimentation and consultation, decided to fully extend the paperless initiative championed by Amada Udres, our Secretary, and to stop providing printed handouts at all of our events. This has taken a significant amount of work to create a unique software solution for managing the collation, copyright and distribution of electronic copies of all of the material presented at these events. The savings have been very worthwhile (approx Â£5,000 per year), and this also allows students to use their own devices to view and annotate the presentations, as well as to print them in ways that accommodate individual needs such as visual impairment, dyslexia etc.
Venue rental is the main cost of most of our day-events, and we have secured help directly from the OU Social Science faculty who have both provided OU premises free-of-charge and have contributed to the cost of non-OU venues. This has been made possible through the efforts by our OU Liaison Officer, Abi Robbins, to build a warm and collaborative relationship with key members of staff throughout and to the top of the School of Psychology.
We have introduced a number of new payment methods, including the ability for students to save for or pay for weekends in instalments. Although we have taken a small number of bookings through these, we have retired some options and are likely to retire the others to reduce the time needed to administer our operation further, as the vast majority of bookings are made in the 3-4 weeks before each event. The most significant improvement in this respect has been the introduction of online credit card payments, which allowed us to remove all of the costs associated with manual credit card transactions, and which is now by far our most popular payment method.
To recap, our financial goals are "to break even or make a small (around 4%) profit" so to achieve this we have to put on events that people are interested enough in to come along to, in sufficient numbers at the right price.
They key challenges here are that we have too little awareness in the student body, and that we may not be offering the right mix of events.
In the first case, people still tell us that they didn't hear about OUPS untli late in their studies or didn't hear about an event they would have loved to attend beforehand. As well as continuing with our usual Facebook and direct email marketing, we have attacked this problem by working with the Psychology department and with OUSA to raise awareness through postings on the module websites/news sidebar. We would like to have regular mailshots sent directly to students, but the faculty team have data protection concerns about whether they have marketing permissions from students to be able to do this. We continue to work together to try to resolve this.
The second issue is that arguably we were not offering the right mix of events either, as our numbers of attendees for all events were declining year-on-year.
So we reviewed our programme, and noting that module-specific events continue to decline (e.g. overview days), we offered new events - e.g. DE200 methods days, more pub socials, opportunities for students to meet up face-to-face. Most of this work was done by the London branch of OUPS and is showing promising results.
Last year I stated that the current regional structure was no longer fit for purpose as it relies completely on dedicated individuals to establish and keep a region open and because "no committee" in eleven out of thirteen regions has meant "no events" there either. We were given regular feedback that events were not being made available around the country, so we asked for input to help us decide where we should target and what events we should aim to provide.
We had a regional structure which prevented us from making events available around the country - essentially we were:
- operating under the "rule" that events could not happen in regions where there wasn't a regional committee
- for no particular reason, attached to a defunct territorial structure that the OU used to use up to several years ago, and
- it has proven to be impossible to get enough support to run any regional committee. We simply don't haven't been able to find people who have the time or interest in setting up the paraphenalia (committee, bank accounts, reporting/annual accounts/AGM etc.) to do this.
However, we often have people who say that they would like to help and be involved in running small (day) events. So we did a number of things. First we merged the London region with the South and South-East regions which were closing down to form the London & South region. We then operated a "Local Events" model through the new London & South committee where setting up an event would be done by LOUPS (identifying and paying tutors, booking venues, paying expenses, advertising and handling bookings) so that the local volunteers just needed to run the day (register attendees, ensure the venue was set up, act as a contact point for any queries on the day).
We rantwo events in Glasgow, two in Brighton, one in Plymouth, one in Cheltenham and one in Manchester. Glasgow events were successful, the events in Brighton were small but both financially and socially successful, but the others were loss-making. Even so, please keep those thinking caps on and send all ideas through to Faye our Regional Representative.
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.
As I mentioned before, we had neglected our governance obligations over many years. This year we continued the significant overhaul of OUPS governance that we started last year, reviewing our Constitution and proposing further amendments for approval at the 2019 AGM.
We introduced standard policies that should have been in place to cover safeguarding and fair business (bribery) and we created and implemented copyright policies and processes for data protection and distribution of materials.
We introduced standard procedures for recording and handling safeguarding incidents, and we were able to show that we were managing this correctly, and could demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Charity Commission that these were fit-for-purpose when they launched an investigation into this earlier this year.
And finally ...
So rather than reporting that we're further down the road to decline that we appeared to be heading down in previous years, I hope that we have made some big steps to getting OUPS in shape to adjust to the changes that are happening all around us, and that we'll be around for many years to come. After a number of years of significant losses we'll be watching the numbers next year to see.
I've thanked Irene earlier, but I'd also like to say a huge thanks to Lorna Rouse, our long-standing newsletter editor, who has had to step down from this post to complete her PhD studies. Lorna ran the whole operation, from sourcing the newsletter articles to proofreading and doing the print layout and then liaising with the printers to get the News & Views to our members, both online and in print. Thanks for everything Lorna - come back when you're Doctor Lorna !
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 :)