What are the alternatives to students having to pay for their course books?

In this blog, we’re asking why students are spending money on core textbooks and looking at the alternatives.
With more than 7 in 10 students admitting they’re worried about having enough money to pay for their course textbooks, surely there is another way?

Being a student can be tough, even without the black cloud of spiralling living costs and tuition fees hanging over their heads. Recent headlines lay it out bare:

  • “Students battle to stay afloat in cost of living crisis”
  • “Student support ‘needed urgently’ as cost of living crisis bites”
  • “Students need practical help, not principles, in the cost-of-living crisis”

The financial burden on students is greater than ever, and their money worries can act as a catalyst that sets off a chain reaction of ill-effects – a strain on mental health, on productivity and ultimately on student performance. Imagine trying to succeed in your degree when your main concern is how you’re going to afford your next meal.

A recent student survey revealed that almost 80 per cent of today’s students were surprised at how expensive university was when they started. The survey, carried out by Kortext, also found that 70 per cent of recent graduates would be worried about affording university if they were starting now in the current financial climate.

Universities and the government are taking tangible steps to reduce the financial burden on their students through the promotion of hardship and discretionary funds and cost of living payments; however, the student voice remains one of unease with many still feeling unable to afford the basics such as the fundamental learning resources that underpin their course.

But students get free access to resources from the library, don’t they?

Whilst it’s true that many universities have introduced “no additional cost policies, with students the need to buy course books often sits in a grey area.

The university library has an extremely difficult job as it strives to meet student needs whilst faced with growing student numbers and the struggles of navigating “unfair” publisher pricing models. Not to mention the issue of artificial scarcity that pervades the digital content industry, making it difficult for some university libraries to build up their digital library holdings enough to satisfy student needs. It would be wrong not to recognise – and indeed, elevate – the significant challenges faced by library teams.

However, for the student, it all comes down to their perception of content access. Whilst universities as a whole do technically provide free access to core course books through the library, too frequently these books are in limited supply. Almost 1 in 4 students say they aren’t or weren’t typically able to borrow the books they needed from their university library at the point of need – ultimately driving many down the purchasing route. Indeed, a recent survey by Save the Student suggests that students are still spending, on average, over £200 per year on course materials. This in mind, can we truly say the “no hidden costs” policy is transparent?

Do we need a caveat to explain to students that they might end up on a waiting list and risk not having access to the book they need in time for their exam or assignment deadline? Is it time for universities to step up and level the playing field for their students?

Bringing the library to the student

The way in which universities provision learning content to their students has always varied, even from programme to programme, but we’re increasingly seeing universities taking on a fresh view of content provision. Take for instance, the University of Westminster or Anglia Ruskin University who are now issuing most of their students with free and instant digital access to all core books on a one-to-one basis. And with widening access and participation plans making it possible for increasing numbers of disadvantaged students to enter higher education, moves like this will remove competition for resources, helping to put students on an even keel from day one of their studies.

Students are largely in favour of having content at their fingertips with over 60 per cent of students agreeing that they would benefit from instant, digital access to course books on their devices. But what does that mean for print books?

Whilst no one can deny that going digital with learning content has its benefits, there is no ‘one size fits all’. The appeal of a physical book – something tangible in your hand – is real and although 70% of students agree that have or would be more inclined to purchase a digital book if it saved them money, that still leaves 3 in 10 who prefer print, so it could be argued that existing physical library holdings are equally as important. That said, we have to understand how students are using their course books to fully understand their preference and why.

The results of a 2021 study carried out at the University of Cambridge revealed that, whilst print books were the preferred resource for reference throughout the year, digital books were more valued when writing assignments and reading specific chapters for study and revision purposes, which is ultimately what students are assessed on.

What’s next for content access?

There’s a simple fact that can’t be ignored: we live in a “society of the now” and today’s students are accustomed to instant entertainment, same day delivery, food to their doorstep in minutes – these aren’t luxuries anymore, they’re an expectation. Why, then, are we not doing it for something as important as education?

One major issue, as ever, is budget, but with an increasing number of universities rethinking digital content provision on a larger scale, and many adopting e-first policies, librarians and university leaders are overcoming budgetary challenges and finding ways to bring the library to the student on demand. How this is executed undoubtedly depends on the size of the institution, but there are plenty of examples out there to learn from and, as universities continue to embrace the evolving digital teaching and learning landscape, there will be plenty more to come.

So, should students ever have to pay for their course books? Unless they want to scribble in them or keep them for posterity, for us it’s a resounding no.

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