Michelle Donelan on the cost of textbooks

Concerns about the cost of textbooks grow - and now the Universities Minister has weighed in. Kind of.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The #ebooksos campaign (there’s an open letter open for signatories) has just published a response to their concerns from Michelle Donelan.

Briefly, the wider push from #ebookssos is for a government investigation into the pricing and licensing of ebooks – noting the additional costs incurred in the purchase of “university licenses” for ebooks that raise costs far beyond what would be charged to a civilian reader and the growth of the “etextbook” model which licenses a range of materials on a per cohort basis. To say Donelan does not engage on these points is to understate matters.

Instead, she argues that learning materials are not a matter for government. This is a peculiar position for the sponsor of a regulator that is nominally concerned with the student experience, and that would doubtless argue that the provision of appropriate learning materials to students is the sort of thing that would be expected from universities. Donelan as much as admits to this in reporting that OfS registered providers:

must continue to provider sufficient and appropriate facilities, learning resources, and student support services to deliver a high-quality academic experience.

The first chunk of her letter, for no clear reason that I can understand, outlines the support offered to the publishing sector during the pandemic. I’m guessing here that she’s trying to imply that publishers could reduce prices if they wanted to, but she she stops far short of actually saying that.

Why has spending on textbooks risen so much?

I was lucky enough to speak to some great librarians while researching a recent piece on the way that expectations around the sheer scale resource provision by libraries have grown during the pandemic. What came through strongly from me is that spending has risen in response to demand from students and academics, and that some publishers have taken advantage of this increased demand by increasing prices.

In an emergency remote learning situation online resources have become the only game in town for the textbook-style materials used by undergraduates in particular. This has led librarians to work with academics to find materials linked to courses that is available in an electronic format, which students could either buy or access via the library.  Student engagement with library resources has risen sharply during the pandemic – and with direct links to learning materials from the virtual learning environment why shouldn’t they?

Though library professionals bring significant expertise and understanding to the discussion, academic course leaders make the final choice of learning resources. Many have been tempted by the US-style “all in one” offers that include assessment and teaching material at a significant premium – others have gone to the other end of the spectrum and designed courses scaffolded purely with openly-licensed educational resources. Most sit somewhere in the middle – using a mixed economy of resources that best suit the demands of the course and the needs of students.

New models and old moods

This is a debate that is very close to my heart. Between 2008 and 2012 I led the UK Open Educational Resources programme, funded by HEFCE and delivered by Jisc and what is now Advance HE. I’ve remained as active as I can be in the domain – I chaired the Open Educational Resources Conference in Bristol in 2018 (do attend the 2021 iteration), and at around the same time I contributed to a research project into the viability of open textbooks in UK higher education.

The UK is a fair few years behind north america in this debate – in the US and Canada, which both have a dominant model of HE that requires a (sometimes custom-published) textbook per module which students are expected to purchase at considerable cost, initiatives have flourished. My understanding that the absence of textbook centrality made the UK different has been challenged during the pandemic – the “required” book has become much more of a factor for students.

The work of the UK Open Textbook project was deliberately focused on academics rather than in the library space. As above, it is academics that make these resource choices, and there is not universal awareness of the costs some choices requires students and libraries to meet. Our project was small scale, but the academics we spoke to in the UK were startled about the financial impact of their resource choices. From our limited findings, we felt that the appetite was clearly there.

But there is always going to be a mixed economy in learning resources – and sometimes traditionally published materials are going to to be the best thing to help students learn. Significant price rises (such as the jaw-dropping 73 per cent over ten years to 2016 seen in the US) only happen where competition has failed and where monopolies or near-monopolies exist. A government inquiry into pricing and marketing practices would be fascinating (and I stand ready to contribute) but market pressure would perhaps be a simpler means of achieving the same goal.

If you have the power to make decisions about learning materials for students, quality is clearly your first consideration. But cost should be a very close second – and you should be looking across materials from a range of sources to develop inspiring, effective, and affordable learning experiences.


One response to “Michelle Donelan on the cost of textbooks

  1. You are keen to contribute to the investigation but did not to talk to the librarians responsible for working towards securing one .

    It really is not clear what you are getting at. You seem to think libraries are all about the “traditional” and are advocating bypassing the library re other models?

    As a librarian it is my job to tell academics the financial impact of their decisions and we work together to find appropriate and affordable resources, be they open or other, “traditional” or new. Indeed, I know far more about alternative models than most do. It is quite literally my job.
    You say you spoke to some great librarians once….but don’t seem to know what we actually do.

    It is reads very condescendingly.

    “A government inquiry into pricing and marketing practices would be fascinating (and I stand ready to contribute) but market pressure would perhaps be a simpler means of achieving the same goal.”

    market pressure ‘aint working. That is the point.

    It is interesting to note that it is 3 women running the campaign but every piece WONKHE have published on this issue has been written by men who have nothing to do with it the campaign

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