Textbook cost of living response

The cost of study resources is a textbook case of how students’ finances are stretched – James Cook U wants to make costs more elastic.

The university library estimates that the average price of prescribed texts for 72 core first year subjects was $119 – which means that students could pay up to $1500 for the books they need.

It’s a long-term and universal problem.  In 2012, then-US Vice President Biden made  textbook costs a third-order presidential election issue; but while publishers there cut costs of digital editions, an e-book with a marginal production cost of effectively zero makes it a business for-profit publishers want to keep. Sarah Lambert and Habiba Fidel’s 2022 study for the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education found restrictions on digital editions so onerous that some found it easier just to buy the print or PDF text.

One way to do help students out is for university managements to pick up the cost of texts. Western Sydney U did this. In 2017 WSU struck a deal with content company ProQuest, with the university paying for digital copies of textbooks for first year students, accessible for the length of the unit. The deal was renewed in 2019, but WSU did not respond by deadline on questions re its status.

Such supping with the digital devil requires university pockets deep enough to deal with publishers who hold rights and are not afraid to invoke them. The ultimate answer for optimists is, as with research publishing, open access – for universities and teaching academics to create their own course content and give it away. The Council of Australian University Librarians has an Open Educational Resources Collective and has funded pilots.  In 2021, California allocated US$115m for community colleges to create “zero-textbook-cost-degrees”.

The problem is finding the academics to write and learning management system staff to publish OA texts, when it is way easier to set the 250th edition of Flamel’s Principles of  Alchemy, and leave it to students to work another five casual shifts to pay for it. 

For now, James Cook U is working with what exists. The Textbook Affordability Project includes, compiling subject reading lists from library-paid resources and “adopt, adapt or create high-quality openly licenced textbooks.”

And for the optimists there is also a variation on the new-ish Council of Australian University Librarians’ deal with research publishers, where journal articles with Australian authors are open access, covered by library subscriptions.

In the textbook case, the JCU library would subscribe to unlimited access e-textbooks. “dependent on favourable publisher licence conditions.” No harm in asking. 



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