A long hot summer in the library

Over the summer, to get new SU officers excited about higher education policy, I’ve been talking about libraries.

No seriously – considering who in a given student body represent winners and losers when it comes to the “goods” in higher education supplied by a library is fascinating. Call me a consumerist all you like, but surely if we don’t fix the fairness of the inputs and the outputs we’ll never fix the fairness of the outcomes and the impacts. This creative bunch of newly elected student reps have all sorts of views about commuter students, and book stock, and whether twenty-four hour facilities are a good use of student fee income. If you’re stiffed with running a Library committee and are trying to find a decent student rep, try your SU this year- you’re in for a treat.

That’s just fine

I’m interested in “goods” in HE. When we think about what people “get” from Debenhams, it’s clothes, shoes and bags. But when we talk about what people “get” from HE it’s all connections, confidence and careers. I understand why, but it’s perfectly possible to identify outcomes and impacts from clothes, shoes and bags. And if we want to fix some of the inequalities in the outcomes and impacts of HE, we should probably talk more about the inequalities in the distribution of facilities, services and “outputs” in a provider.

The other day the Guardian carried a piece on working class VCs, and Steve Smith from Exeter’s contribution caught my eye:

Smith’s theory is that this is because studying at university is much more of a “leveller” than any other process you go through; the point from which your outcome is no longer determined by your background.

I’m not sure he’s right. This question of “goods” and the slow drift away from universality is all around us. There have always been richer students with private tutors and better housing, but one by one the “levellers” are disappearing.

Once-cheap campus catering is being replaced by branches of “Five Guys” and “Pret” – not places everyone can afford. It’s right that private accommodation providers are thinking about welfare support – but what about those banished to HMOs because the rents are cheaper – or the commuters who come in on the bus? And any student wishing to improve their physical fitness on campus will know that at best, demand-smoothing means cheaper sessions are at terrible times – or worse, they can’t access the equipment that others can afford.

Back when the student body was more homogenous, for example, library fines probably made sense. But as campuses become more diverse, the long held reality – that some students really can afford library fines, and some really can’t – brings equality of access into much sharper focus. Shifting stock into e-books as campuses make way for somewhere sticky to sit might help – but plenty of student officers think we should be abandoning fining altogether – finding other ways to ensure that the student community shares knowledge equitably.

The stock held by a library is only part of the story, of course. The scarcity of “core texts” (even in e-form licensing) and the lingering question of whether one needs to buy all of the books on a reading list is another perennial – and one that disproportionately affects those whose families are unfamiliar with higher education.

A glance in my attic at SU newspapers from thirty years back tells us how this used to equal out – some students would buy new books, and others would buy old copies at SU book fayres, or in some cases on-campus second hand book stores. We can’t see much of this trade any more – so much of it has moved to Amazon – but it’s how students have always achieved a degree of equality of access for the knowledge not in stock in the library.

Bursting the bubble

Trouble is, this may well be under threat too. Outside of the higher education bubble, there’s a revolution going on in media goods. The entire industry is shifting online – and the big change isn’t so much that everything is digital, it’s that people are renting rather than owning content.

That’s not so bad when your rental payment gives you access to everything. But Netflix is about to have most of its third-party content taken back into the walled gardens of multiple costly subscription services – that not everyone will be able to afford. See the row over free-to-air coverage of cricket and the impact on education and participation in the sport that commentators are worried about.

There are problems in gaming too. Microsoft got itself into some trouble a few years back when it proposed killing off the CD-ROM as a way of buying the latest games for the X-Box, because in the process it would have killed off the roaring trade in “pre-owned” games available from murky stores on the edge of towns like CEX and GAME. Without that trade, many kids simply wouldn’t be able to afford to play.

Pay to play

So the news that the world’s largest education publisher Pearson has taken the first step towards phasing out print books by making all its learning resources “digital first” (at least in the US) is interesting, and we should take note. Pearson’s UK boss says:

There will still be [print] textbooks in use for many years to come but I think they will become a progressively smaller part of the learning experience. We learn by engaging and sharing with others, and a digital environment enables you to do that in a much more effective way… for the Netflix and Spotify generation, they expect to rent not own.

He’s right of course. Those pining for the retention of the “book” and the “library” are living in the past. E-resources can be accessed when students need them, cost less to store, and can be updated almost instantly. They don’t need a complex and time-consuming inter-library loan system and with the right policies and planning the space – both physical and administrative – can be freed up to improve support for students.

But there’s a looming danger. Just as in television and gaming, the ability of the disadvantaged to obtain some of these goods – especially those that don’t make it into the increasingly tight central budget – could soon be wiped out. Unless we give some thought to this now, our efforts to widen access to universities could result in deeper inequalities of access to knowledge even if we’re successful in enrolling a more diverse student body.

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