Student Needs are Evolving. Can University Learning Resources Keep Up?

Sam AramBy Sam Aram20th February 20209 Minutes

When considering the material expenses of pursuing higher education, steep tuition fees tend to be the central focus of conversation. In exchange for a degree, graduates are saddled with staggering amount of debt. Since the issue of astronomically high tuition fees dominate the discourse surrounding the value of attending university, other equally problematic expenses are forgotten.

The ever-increasing price of textbooks is a pervasive burden on students nationwide, but this issue doesn’t get the attention it merits. The more I think about the money spent on texts during my 3 years at university, the more convinced I am that the price of course materials has a significant effect on students and their academic journeys, and I wanted to look into statistics and data to understand the breadth of impact that the price of textbooks is having on students.

Explaining the problem

To begin with, I wanted to confirm whether this was a genuine issue within the student community. The National Student Survey (NSS) collates and analyses feedback from over 4 million students, making it the most comprehensive report on student satisfaction across all higher education institutions in the UK. According to the NSS (2019), learning resources provided by 60% of UK HE institutions are below the benchmark set for student satisfaction. Essentially, 3 in 5 students are frustrated with the provision of the necessary materials to pass their modules and obtain a qualification. I’m confident that students’ disappointment in resource provision stems from two factors: firstly, the current generation is tech-driven and expects seamless experiences in how they interact with content; secondly, libraries operating on a one-book-per-user model are failing to cater for the entire student population.

Insofar as print is the primary learning resource, physical limitations will always exist. Even if a university has sufficient funds, libraries will struggle to provide key materials when there are thousands of students to provide for. As a consequence, students are left with no choice but to purchase expensive books or pirate unreliable content. According to an official study carried out by the University of Essex, “textbook inflation since 1977 is 1,041% – almost four times the overall rate of inflation. This means that today’s typical student can expect to budget between £450 and £1070 for books and equipment per year” (University of Essex, 2016). It’s unreasonable to expect students to shell out such vast sums for learning materials, especially when it’s a direct consequence of their institution failing to innovate.

Consequences

Limiting access to learning resources has alarming consequences. Research conducted in the US showed that 65% of students had decided against buying a textbook because it was too expensive, and that 94% of students were concerned about the impact this decision would have on their academic performance. It’s likely that students in the UK are experiencing similar difficulties.

Only last year Damian Hinds former Education Secretary, voiced serious concerns about the increasing university dropout rates. According to government data released last year, 8.8% of students from disadvantaged backgrounds dropped out within the first year of their studies, compared to 6% of their more privileged peers. The excessive price of textbooks plays a role in this disparity, putting undue pressure on students from lower-income families to get the resources they need to thrive academically.

The cost of learning materials is also having an impact on the career paths individuals are pursuing. In fact, research shows that students take the price of educational resources into consideration when deciding which classes, and how many of them, they want to take per semester (Senack, 2014). These results are concerning because they suggest that students are putting financial concerns before their own interests.

Finally, financial stress has a profound influence as well on mental wellbeing. Research conducted by the National Union of Students revealed that “more than a third of students say that financial worries have an impact on their mental health”. From my personal observations, persistent mental health issues weakened the reputation of the university I attended, and I’m convinced that actively attempting to protect and improve students’ mental health would go a long way in upholding a university’s reputation. Alleviating the costs of studying would be a good start.

Conclusion

The knock-on effects of overpriced learning materials and an outdated library system can be detrimental to both institutions and their students.

The resources provided by universities must be accessible to all students. By only stocking physical copies of reading material or adopting digital licensing models with limited capabilities and access, university libraries can only accommodate a fraction of the student population. The restrictive nature of the one-book-one-user model is driving inequality among students, with the performance of lower-income students being affected the most.

Delivering learning resources digitally would bridge this inequality gap. Digital delivery would remove physical barriers, alleviate the financial burden on students and make learning an infinitely more flexible experience. Digital content would furthermore make university libraries more efficient by removing all-too-common issues like overdrawn print books and insufficient bookshelf space; and by allowing the collection of data on student interests, institutions would better understand knowledge gaps to remodel curricula.

Universities, however, fail to realise that whilst ensuring flexibility and efficiency are necessary parts of the solution, these characteristics alone are not sufficient. Digital delivery can overturn student disappointment with learning resource but without restructuring the delivery model, digital access will only perpetuate existing inequalities and frustrations.

Online learning resources can only effectively address the “textbook problem” if they are based on a model which provides unrestricted access to all students in an equal manner. A lack of innovation could become detrimental to academic success, university reputation and dissuade future applicants from pursuing higher education.