Letter from the Chair - Sep 2020
We've had a very strange year, ending up in the middle of a never-before-seen health crisis, so in this update I want to talk about how we've done. I want to focus on finance and product, but I'll give a short update on structure and governance as well. But to start, I'd like to briefly reflect on the purpose of OUPS - why do we exist at all ?
OUPS is a registered charity, and as such we have a legal requirement to state our charitable objects, i.e. why we should be given charitable status, which carries legal and financial obligations and advantages.
These charitable objects are stated in our Constitution, and filed with the Charity Commission in the UK, and they are:
"to advance public education in psychology amongst members of the Open University who are taking, have taken, or are proposing to take courses in psychology or cognate subjects with the Open University."
That's it ! That is what we have declared through our Constitution and as a registered charity, that is all that we officially exist to do.
However in addition, we declare on our website that we exist
to support OU psychology students both academically and socially throughout your studies and also after you graduate [and] to give you opportunities to enrich your study and your enjoyment of psychology.
So if that's what we do, what about how we go about doing this ?
There's a firm consensus within the current OUPS Committee that an important aspect of how we go about meeting these goals is by providing face-to-face events that give distance-learning students the opportunity to meet other people who are involved or interested in psychology. This is for fun, to exchange ideas and experiences and to network with professional psychologists.
OUPS has "always done it this way", and the Committee members enjoy creating and running face-to-face events like this, but it is not obvious that this is how our members want to attend our events. Certainly the number of people who come along in person is far lower than we hope for, so maybe we've got it completely wrong ?
There has been a complete demographic shift in the OU student body in the last five years or so. No more exams meant no revision weekends (apart from DE200), the removal of the government subsidy for university education led to a tripling of university fees and the combination means that:
- The percentage of time-rich, more mature students is far lower than it was;
- The percentage of busy, younger students has soared;
- Many more students select the OU as their first-choice university because they can study online, in their own time - maybe the current majority just prefer to operate remotely in an "on-demand, catchup" way ?
People who come to our events overwhelmingly tell us how much they enjoy them and how much they appreciate being able to meet other people. But maybe the majority of students don't have the childcare, or the time/funds to travel or the inclination to socialise, or maybe they would just prefer to drop in online ?
So given these differences from "the old days", how does OUPS need to change to meet our goals to advance public education, support OU psychology students academically and socially and to give them opportunities to enrich their study and enjoyment of psychology ?
These are some of the questions that I've been grappling with since our last AGM, but it's been clear for some years that we can't just keep doing things "the way we've always done it", even more so now while face-to-face simply isn't an option, and also that the practical means to reach more people online has finally arrived.
However in a volunteer-run organisation it's critical that the people who run it are excited and motivated about doing the kind of work required - enthusiastic committees have been the foundation of OUPS' success since it was founded almost fifty years ago. I think that it is quite possible that we will reach a point where the demand for face-to-face events is far exceeded by demand for online events. We have even had a number of international attendees at online events this year and I suspect that will only increase. Given that we have a committee who joined because they are most interested in advancing face-to-face opportunities, we may need to find a new group of volunteers who are enthusiastic about organising these kinds of events to make sure that OUPS can continue for the next fifty years ... maybe someone reading this ? If you would be interested in helping, whether or not you would want to be involved on the committee, then please do get in touch.
As many of you will recall, for a number of years our events were costing us more than we were charging. This was because the running cost of OUPS as it was structured was too high for the number of attendees we were attracting. So we were making repeated and significant annual losses.
To address this we adjusted our prices in line with venue costs and reduced our own running costs - sounds simple but there was a lot to do.
For example (not an exhaustive list):
- We continued to invest in our website and management systems to make the Paperless distribution processes more seamless and reduce administration effort further;
- We moved to online booking only (no paper or phone booking) so we could use a single online credit-card provider with cheaper contactless kit and no phone costs or effort;
- We only use the minimum number of OUPS committee members at weekends other than May, where we include the committee to avoid the cost of holding a separate event for our AGM and the first ECM after the committee elections;
- We negotiated our arrangements with Warwick Conferences to avoid unnecessary costs for unsold rooms, and we stopped doing work to organise weekends that they did anyway as part of their standard service;
- We stopped having a paid Business Administrator and moved our booking, enquiry and support services online to be done by the Chair, Treasurer and Secretary.
However this has meant a lot more administration work, and we will see significant change to the work that the members of the OUPS committee need to do from now on. We will also need to extend this work to more members of the committee as the number of online support tickets grows. Happily, there is less "hands-on" organisation to do because we don't need to do as much as we used to do at Warwick.
So now our costs and income are more sensibly aligned and we have a sustainable basis to grow from. Without these changes, I genuinely believe that this could have been the year that OUPS went bankrupt, but now I believe we have a future.
We still have too little awareness of OUPS in the OU student body, and although our promotion work has increased significantly (e.g. we co-market with The Royal Institution, the BPS, The Weekend University and others), our conversion ratio - people who see our marketing compared to the number who then book those events - remains low (1-4%). For example, we might market a general interest event to 1500 mailboxes, see 80% of those emails opened (1200) and 15-50 bookings.
The COVID pandemic devastated our face-to-face event programme, but it brought the silver lining of a huge social change in how all of us interact with each other online. People who might have been technologically uncomfortable, or who just couldn't be bothered to watch an online talk before became much more willing to do so, and we were able to meet this demand through both online-only and hybrid (live-streamed) events.
We were also able to further our agenda to increase access to our events, through our subsidised places and by offering online access, though cost continues to be an important issue.
London & South OUPS invested in an online platform when lockdown started and between April and September presented six online talks and a full-day conference, some free and some paid. We did a huge amount of development to integrate our website and booking systems with the different online platforms, but the feedback has been fantastic, the annual investment in this has now paid off and so we will try to make future London online events cheaper to reflect this.
Hybrid (both online and in-person) events
Warwick Conferences have also invested in livestreaming equipment and so, for the first time, we were able to make an online option available a few weeks ago for our "Transitioning to DE200" and "DE300 Springboard" events. This was a painful and expensive experiment, the technology was unproven and the registration process was clunky but the feedback has been phenomenal and we will try to negotiate a way to make this possible to do again in the future.
I want to make the point that this is not simple stuff - it really is not just a case of sticking up a Youtube livestream on a smartphone. To be able to guarantee a reliable, high-quality service we need tutors who are willing to be on camera (not all are), we need equipment to be available in the venue with technicians to operate it and we need high-speed connectivity to the internet, and all this at an affordable cost. This isn't always possible - for example, for us to break even on the first quote we received for putting the two Warwick events online, we would have had to charge online attendees more than we charged in-person attendees ...
However the technology continues to advance quickly, though while we have investigated using cheaper equipment (effectively "super-webcams" and bonding several mobile devices to make a high-speed mobile hotspot) to do this ourselves more cheaply, this may be possible in another year or two, but it's not there yet.
We also continue to investigate the possibility of recordings, which we get many queries about. We see the value of these, and are continuing to investigate the options. However there are significant challenges related to recordings: obtaining and maintaining permissions from tutors and attendees is problematic, as is copyright and distribution rights. As trustees of a registered charity we can't just do it and trust to luck that we don't get sued (though many online operations are doing precisely this).
There is also the practical issue that while one-off events like conferences might be worth recording (because we could sell them afterwards, assuming we can work out how the proceeds are shared between all the parties involved), this may not make financial sense for annually repeated events: if you can buy the recording why bother turning up ?
The regional structure as described in our Constitution is effectively defunct. The London & South region is the most active part of OUPS right now, and the Cambridge group ran a few events in 2019 but has not operated this year given the pandemic.
Last year I stated that the current regional structure was no longer fit for purpose as it relies on dedicated individuals establishing a committee to open a region. However "no committee" in eleven out of thirteen regions meant "no events" there either, so we abandoned that approach.
Instead the London branch provided the administration support (handled bookings and queries, paid tutors and venues, etc.) to enable local volunteers to run a number of events around the country over the last 18 months. The regional events have met with mixed success, Glasgow events were successful, but events that were successful when run in Glasgow and London all made a loss when we repeated them in Manchester (and previously in Plymouth and Cheltenham).
So overall it's debatable whether we can justify continuing to offer these local events when things "return to normal". The evidence shows clearly that the volume of complaints that "there's nothing in my area" unfortunately exceeds the number of paying customers in almost every case. My conclusion is that as it becomes more practical to enable remote access, it's more likely that we will use livestreaming instead as a way to increase access to future events where the facilities make this possible.
Thankfully we didn't have to do any work on policies and processes this year, though the work in the previous couple of years has paid off and when we have needed to, we have been able to show that we are operating as a well-managed society because we have put some of these formal processes in place.
So that's it from me for this time, but before I finish I'd like to thank the OUPS committee, our tutors and all our volunteers who helped arrange and run our events.
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. The stories we hear about how our events have helped and affected the people who come to them are why we do this.