The hidden costs of university: why technology is key to solving them

How higher education expenses are preventing wider accessibility, and the steps the sector can take to help mitigate these costs

A good education is often the foundation of a happy and successful life. Recently, much focus has been given to non-academic pathways, and an alleged ‘devaluation’ of the university degree. However, it’s hard to argue with the data, with research showing that, when compared to non-graduates, graduates are both employed at a greater rate and earn more on average. The UK is blessed with a number of world class universities, and it’s important for the economic and social health of the country that young people of all social backgrounds are provided the opportunity to attend.

The importance of accessibility is well understood by faculties and government alike, and we can point to several initiatives designed to further this aim. Many of these focus on removing economic obstacles to university, and while financial barriers are definitely significant, the programmes aimed at removing them are often too narrow in their scope. The cost of tuition will certainly prevent many from pursuing higher education, especially with fees costing £9,250 a year, and with the average graduate now leaving with a total debt of £40,000. However, the focus placed on tuition fees has inadvertently distracted from one of the biggest costs to students: the price of university textbooks.

The costs of textbooks and the effect on students

The price of university textbooks has grown at an incredibly rapid rate. Statistics show that the cost of academic materials has increased by 1,041% since 1977 – almost four times the overall rate of inflation in the wider economy. This means that the typical contemporary student should expect to spend between £450 and £1,070 on their textbook and equipment needs per year. These certainly aren’t insignificant figures, and with broader living costs such as student accommodation also having grown rapidly, this creates a squeeze on many students’ finances.

This prohibitive cost of new materials often forces students to seek out alternative avenues. Some might be able to find copies of textbooks within their university libraries, but the demand for these often far outstrips the number of books available. Furthermore, COVID has highlighted that physical access to libraries is not always possible; a day-to-day reality for some differently-abled students. Thus, some students will unfortunately miss out, and many students are forced to forgo essential textbooks.

This disproportionately impacts those from more challenging economic backgrounds. Not only does it act as a downward force on their academic performance, it could also affect the courses they are able to take, with poorer students only able to choose courses which require fewer textbooks. This creates a stratified, two-tiered structure for education, where richer students are not only able to choose from a wider range of subjects, but are more likely to succeed due to their background.

Why prices are so high

While many publishers would like to produce materials at a more affordable price point, unfortunately the economics of textbooks has prevented them from doing so.

Copyright fees, for instance, can be incredibly expensive. As an example, a literature anthology which would be commonly used on an English course would involve clearing hundreds, or potentially even thousands, of different copyrights. There are also a number of other costs involved with the production of a textbook, including paying editorial staff for their refinement of drafts and spending money on marketing the book.

“There are also no limits to the number of copies that a digital library can hold, so no longer will students be forced to compete over limited copies”

Further, for certain subjects, ensuring that a textbook is filled with the most up-to-date information results in costly issuing and reissuing new editions of a textbook. While a Shakespearean text might not need such consistent updating, the same cannot be said of a book looking at astronomy or biology, for example.

Finally, the production of physical textbooks isn’t something which can be scaled simply. While it’s possible to produce some economies of scale, the reality remains that each additional book requires more paper, more ink, more electricity, as well as increasing overall distribution costs. All of these factors contribute to the high cost of textbooks.

How technology can help

Modern technology allows us to work towards an outcome that benefits publishers, students and faculties alike. Digital textbooks drastically reduce the production and distribution costs associated with physical textbooks. Where before, a publisher would incur a significant cost to produce an additional copy or update a book, with a digital edition this can be done almost instantly at very little cost. There are also no limits to the number of copies that a digital library can hold, so no longer will students be forced to compete over limited copies. Similarly, there are next to no costs for distributing a new edition. These savings experienced by the publisher can be passed onto faculties and students, saving them money.

Digital textbooks also increase accessibility for students with disabilities; for example, digital textbooks can be packaged together with ‘read aloud’ options, and customisable font sizes to provide options for those with different needs. This can help to further accessibility and also reduce barriers to higher education.

Much progress has been made when it comes to furthering levels of educational accessibility, but more work needs to be done. Up until now, the economics of textbook production had unfortunately resulted in unaffordable prices for students and universities. However, by leveraging digital textbook technology, the materials can be produced and made available at a fair price to all, allowing everyone to benefit from a university education.

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