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 :)