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The History of OUPS — 40 Years of Supporting OU Psychology Students

The History of OUPS — 40 Years of Supporting OU Psychology Students

By Lorna Rouse

I feel I should begin this article with a disclaimer. As a relative newcomer to the OUPS committee this information does not come from personal experience. I have spoken to current committee members, delved into the archives of the OU and OUPS. Inevitably the information I have found is selective and has depended on the people I have been able to speak to and documents that have survived. I could find no first hand reminiscences from the original committee.

The story of how the Open University began and its establishment and success often in the face of some scepticism and hostility is itself a remarkable one. In 1964 Harold Wilson appointed Jennie Lee Minister for Arts and asked her to take responsibility for the ‘University of the Air’ project. The OU was officially established as a university and granted a royal charter on 23rd April 1969. In January 1971 it opened to 25,000 students (The Open University, 2014). In the prospectus and first official publication of the OU in November 1969, Vice-Chancellor Walter Perry wrote that the OU’s intention was ‘to offer real opportunities to all those of you who have long wished for a chance to improve your role in life by one of the few means that brings lasting satisfaction – education’.

In the early years students could not study for a psychology degree but psychology courses were available under Social Sciences, one of four multi-disciplinary foundation courses. The first Social Sciences course was Understanding Society: A Foundation Course (D100). The course proposed to ‘consider five different views of man – the economic, sociological, psychological, political and geographic – in order to highlight these various facets of his life in society’ (The Open University, 1969) The 1974 course description describes psychology as ‘the most experimental of the disciplines with which we’ve worked’. From 1973 students could study the module D205 Psychology – principles & methods (The Open University, 1974). To a recent OU graduate, all the early course materials have a familiar feel including timetables, methods books, study guides and project booklets.

One thing that has changed is the psychology kits sent to students. The cognitive psychology course (D303) kit included a timer ‘for timed experiments and games to help understand problem solving theories’. Items sent for SD286 – Biology, Brain & Behaviour included an aquarium which students were asked to fill with Siamese fighting fish and ‘experiments were performed to monitor behaviour of the fish’ (The Open University, 2014).

The first 10 years of OUPS
The idea for an OU Psychological Society was proposed in 1973, at around the same time as the first psychology modules became available. With the start of the Introduction to Psychology module (DS261), OU student Ann Humphries wrote a letter to the OU student magazine Sesame in November 1973, asking that any students, course staff or people with an interest in psychology contact her to indicate an interest in the possibility of an OU Psychological Society. The idea had the backing of Professor Annett, the Chair in Psychology who developed the Introduction to Psychology module. In the April/May 1974 edition of Sesame, Ann Humphries wrote a second letter. Despite what must have been a small number of people studying psychology with the OU at the time, she had received so many replies from across the UK that Ann had written to one person in each region asking them to form local groups. Ann suggested that local groups be based around study centres, connecting and represented by an elected national committee. Local groups would organise their own talks and social events. The national committee would co-ordinate, perhaps produce a newsletter and run an annual conference. The Society could be of interest to those specialising in or just interested in psychology. Finances were a concern, with Ann Humphreys making a plea to her correspondents to include a stamp addressed envelope or ‘her OU funds will be at breaking point by the time this society gets going!’

OUPS held its inaugural meeting on the 1st June 1974 at Aston University in Birmingham. Professor Annett from the OU helped to draw up the constitution and membership fees started at £1. In her article on the first 10 years of OUPS (1994) Dr Elizabeth Cowne names the founder members as Ann Humphries, John Clapham and Len Brown. The first Chairperson, Mary Winning stressed that ‘OUPS is a student society with the prime purpose of fostering and expanding student interests and activities.’ The first OUPS AGM/national psychology day was held in London on the 27th September 1975. Ann Humphries was elected National President with Professor Judith Greene as Vice-President. Judith Greene was Professor of Psychology at the OU and involved in developing early courses with Richard Stevens, so OUPS had close links to the OU Psychology Department. In both the 10th and 20th anniversary editions of the newsletter, Lilli Hvingtoft-Foster (current President of OUPS) writes of these ‘courageous’ founder members to whom OUPS owes its existence. OUPS was started without funding and was ‘built on their enthusiasm’ (OUPS, 1984;1994). Early regular events included a humanistic weekend and weekend schools for courses which did not have their own summer school (Social Psychology).

An important concern of the fledgling Society was that OU graduates were not considered eligible for BPS graduate recognition. Ann Humphries envisaged a benefit of the Society would be to help negotiate BPS recognition and membership so that OU graduates could make a career in psychology. OUPS worked with Professor Greene to promote the idea of an OU honours degree to satisfy BPS requirements for graduate membership. In the 20th anniversary edition of the newsletter, Professor Greene writes that one of her first
contacts on joining the OU in 1976 was with OUPS and recalls the role of OUPS members in bringing the problem of BPS recognition to her attention. As the OU offered more psychology courses including cognitive psychology, the BPS recognised the degree for graduate
membership in 1978. According to Professor Greene, OUPS contributed to the success of the OU psychology degree over its first 25 years, during which the OU degree went from ‘grudging acceptance to a benchmark for other universities’.

An OUPS flier from 1988 claims that once the principal aim of BPS recognition had been achieved, the purpose of the Society became to ‘provide a wider experience of psychology for its members.’

Lilli Hvingtoft-Foster
Lilli joined the London region as Events Secretary in 1979 and her contacts and skills in procuring star-studded speakers led to some major names at OUPS events including Donald Broadbent, John Bowlby, B.F. Skinner and Noam Chomsky. The talks by Skinner and Chomsky were both recorded by the BBC. Following his talk, Skinner was presented with a cutglass goblet engraved with two pecking pigeons! Lilli became national Chairperson in 1982 and President in 1983 – a role that she still holds today. Katherine Pemberton in the 20th
anniversary edition of the newsletter recalls when attending her first weekend event that Lilli stood out by her ‘elegance, charm and a certain… something!’

One of the earliest OU students and members of OUPS, Lilli recalled the particular need for support at this early stage due to a lack of previous students or exam papers to turn to. ‘Therefore the creation of OUPS was a lifeline. It gave OUPS members the opportunity to share, exchange and discuss views and knowledge with other students, whenever we met at OUPS events. It also brought the course tutors and guest speakers much closer to the students, who otherwise may have been, to them, just student numbers on a piece of paper.’

The articles and interviews in this and previous newsletters echo this view of the value of OUPS today. ‘We were therefore deeply grateful for this splendid, new, supportive Society and in return some of us felt encouraged to contribute whatever skills we had to develop it
further. My contribution was a determination to bring the world’s best to our members.’ Clearly this was something she achieved!
Something in the nature of OU students that hasn’t changed – ‘no speaker escaped being questioned, provoked or criticised by the audience.’ In particular,John Bowlby had been challenged to such a degree that Lilli felt she ‘had to terminate the argument’. It is clear from
her own and the writings of others that Lilli drove the move to bring this success to the running of national events. There are many mentions of her in this newsletter as bringing on board long-term committee members and tutors.

OUPS became a registered charity in 1980 and continued to go from strength to strength. By 1988 OUPS was running a general psychology weekend, courses, workshops, a September revision weekend and a humanistic weekend. Regions flourished and extended to Europe, OUPS produced an annual journal The New Psychologist which published some of the best OU student projects as well as articles from members of the OU Psychology department. The Society even produced its own merchandise including mugs and cuddly toys (known as ‘guilt presents’ for family left behind for the weekend). By the 1990s membership and event numbers were high with up to 800 students attending revision weekends, more than attended OU summer school!

OUPS Present & Future
As technology moved on OUPS developed a website and became more concerned with online bookings than stamp addressed envelopes. There is now a thriving OUPS Facebook community, especially with the recent development of the ask Fred and OUPS page by administered by Abi Robbins https://www.facebook.com/groups/258905300944457/.

There has been a strong commitment to OUPS by committee members and tutors throughout the Society’s history. Speaking to the current committee not only reflects this but conveys a sense of determination to take OUPS forward and excitement about the Society’s future. All agreed that although OUPS faces challenges as the OU changes courses and adjusts schedules, this has led to a new and exciting way of thinking about future events. Reading through the newsletter archives and listening to OUPS members today, it is striking how very similar the concerns of those early OU students were to current students 40 years later. The benefits that OUPS members and delegates gain from OUPS events also remain the same. More than anything attendees highlight the value of contact with other students, tutors, course team and committee members. It is the opportunity to talk to others who are in the same situation or have been there. This shared experience improves confidence, learning, understanding and experience of studying Psychology with the OU.

As seen in the stories of the graduates in this edition of the newsletter, studying psychology with the OU is an adventure that brings many highs and lows but is a huge and often life changing experience. The role of OUPS has and continues to be the provision of support to ease some of the challenges of distance learning and add to the enjoyment of that experience.

The Open University Psychological Society(September, 1994), Celebrating 25 years for the University and 20 years of the Society, The Newsletter of The Open University Psychological Society.
The Open University Psychological Society(August, 1984),10th Anniversary Edition, The Newsletter of The Open University Psychological Society.
The Open University (2014), The History of the Open University, http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/historyofou/
OU prospectus & course materials accessed at the Open University archive, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes http://www.open.ac.uk/library/library-resources/the-open-university-archive#contact

This article originally appeared in the 40th anniversary edition of News & Views.


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