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21st March 2023

If books could kill: Are course books too expensive?

Should students be made to fork out hundreds of pounds each year for course books? We explore the social and financial implications of the prices of university books.
If books could kill: Are course books too expensive?

It’s January, and your student loan has just landed in your account. Before lectures start up again, you need to get your course books – any excuse for a trip to Blackwell’s! You head over to the table of university bundles, find the books you need, and head to the checkout feeling productive and prepared for the semester ahead. This aura of positivity comes crashing down when the cashier turns around the card machine, and you suddenly find yourself paying £43.

No, it’s not a mistake – this really is the discounted price of a course book bundle. At full price, this same bundle would have set you back £65. And this is for just one module, lasting one semester.

For a semester of three regular English Literature modules, the recommended Blackwell’s bundles would add up to £138.79. Therefore, over the course of a three-year degree, students can end up spending hundreds of pounds on books. This raises the question: when we already spend £9k a year on tuition fees, shouldn’t the relevant materials be provided for free? 

 A 2021 study by the learning enablement platform, BibliU, found that 70% of university students in the UK have skipped buying required course textbooks. Around half of these people said that this was because they simply couldn’t afford these expenses. It’s not just a matter of being stingy and cutting corners – the price of course books is another unnecessary contributor to the cycle of educational elitism.

Naturally, the students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, with the least disposable income, are going to feel the most inclined to avoid these extra expenses. This can mean either resorting to inferior editions or foregoing the purchase altogether. This provides an unnecessary hurdle in front of already disadvantaged students, putting them behind their peers before the semester has even begun. 

If asking students to fork out hundreds of pounds for books wasn’t already questionable enough, it seems especially out-of-touch during a cost-of-living crisis.

While a few course books here and there might seem like an insignificant addition in the grand scheme of things, when combined with other mounting prices it’s easy to see how students get swamped with financial stress. Money worries are one of the biggest reasons for students dropping out of university, and, for some, the price of these reading lists could mean choosing between a bundle of books or their weekly food shop. 

 In the same BibliU study, 32% of these students said that they could afford them, but that the purchase would be a waste of money. This is understandable – before starting a module, it’s not always clear as to just how essential all the books on the reading list are.

A book could either be a focal point of the course or simply recommended background reading. Some books are covered for just a single lecture, before moving on to a new text. It’s no surprise, then, that some students don’t feel overly enthusiastic about investing in a book that will be used for an hour, and then be discarded to a dingy corner of their room for the rest of the year.  

 There are, of course, some loopholes to this dilemma. Most courses will encourage purchasing the official Blackwell’s bundles, but often buying second-hand books can be a far more economical choice. For starters, you, or someone you know, might already own one of the books, making buying the whole bundle unnecessary. Charity shops offer books for around £1-£2 and, if you are thinking ahead, you might stumble across the exact book you need in Oxfam or Barnardo’s. 

The best way to buy second-hand, however, is by searching for the specific books you need on eBay, Facebook groups, or even Depop. This is not only cheaper, but also more sustainable, as you’re reusing the books that someone else no longer needs. If you’re lucky there might even be a few rogue annotations or notes from its previous owner.

This can also be a great way to make your money back again, reselling any course books that you won’t use again at the end of the semester (because are you really going to be rereading that copy of Beowulf again any time soon?). 

Being a uni student in the digital age means that many texts can be found online, in PDF or eBook format. Plus, the benefit of so many courses focusing on crusty old books written by long-dead authors is that they are often in the public domain as PDFs or free audiobooks. While, again, this isn’t always a suitable long-term option, it can be a useful way to save money on the texts that are more background reading for the module. 

And, of course, there’s always the library, where students can find any books free of charge. However, this is held back by the fact that library books can not be annotated, and come with limited loan periods and high demand during exam season. When 300 people are doing the same module, the limited selection in the library can be hard to get your hands on.

Ultimately, investing in the official, university-recommended course books can often be the only truly viable option if you want to have the correct editions of all the necessary books. Students shouldn’t have to find loopholes or buy knock-off editions in order to save money.

The only real way to ensure a more democratic and accessible higher education landscape is to provide students with reading materials as part of the degree package that they already pay for. 

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