Now our access to e-books is under threat

Alice Robinson is the Academic Experience Officer at Loughborough Students Union

If students aren’t facing enough issues already with the cost of living and housing crisis, another problem now faces universities – one that could mean students encounter further hardship in their studies too.

Most students want more e-books. Being able to borrow without carting books about is convenient, more accessible and frees up campus space that can be used for students to study and learn.

Off the back of the e-book and e-textbook market flourishing in the last 3 years given the impact of the pandemic, many universities have adapted to a “digital first” policy to match both the change in demand and to increase sustainability.

Many students depend upon digital media to complete their studies. The functionality and accessibility of digital resources far exceed printed resources – and they’re now something that has gone from novelty to something that many students and their universities have become reliant on.

Many SUs are running campaigns to limit the number of books students buy themselves – and that relies on university resources, such as library materials, being available to support the entire student population.

When 82 per cent of students worry about finances according to the National Student Money Survey, the next logical step would be to protect everything that is a necessity to students, with books being a key example.

But recent developments in the prices of and the models for purchasing e-books and e-textbooks are starting to make them unaffordable for libraries.

The price was the price

The first problem is the pricing model.

When universities purchased books, it didn’t matter how many students went on to access that book – the price was the price.

But increasingly our libraries are being told by e-book publishers that they have to move to a model where every student who sees or reads a particular text must be accounted for and paid for.

That’s a problem – and creates costs that our universities are finding it increasingly difficult to control.

Related to that is the issue of Digital Rights Management. Books can both be borrowed and sold on a second hand market. But the publishers of e-books tend to want to apply access restrictions beyond the point of purchase.

That’s a problem – and could push many students into accessing pirated content when doing so is all but dead in the movie and music industries.

Then there’s the platform. Ebooks are less like Spotify, Apple Music or Deezer – where almost everything is available on each one and platforms compete on functionality and price – and more like Netflix, Disney Plus and Prime Video, where to get the full range of content you may have to subscribe to every one.

Then if a platform that has the resources for a key course puts its prices up, there’s little the university can do other than cough up.

Placing pressure

Could universities be pressured to increase funding? Possibly, but with the costs rising much faster than even the current rate of inflation, they are not the root of the problem. The root of the problem are companies that can charge costs of £1,000 for books (for three users) that could cost pennies to print.

Creating equitable and inclusive access to resources that are essential to a student’s studies should be a priority for everyone in higher education. What we need to see is an investigation into the practices of the academic e-book and e-textbook publishers by the Competition and Markets Authority, to make sure students are not becoming disadvantaged in their studies due to something completely out of their control.

SU’s should apply pressure to make sure student educational essentials are protected – and students are given every opportunity to succeed in their degrees. This can be done through the CMA website by reporting this issue in this market sector.

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