Course Books: To Buy or Not To Buy? | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Course Books: To Buy or Not To Buy?

Comment Writer Lucy Painter discusses the price of course books and how access to them should be improved

I remember that when I first found out I was coming to the University of Birmingham, one of the first things that I thought of is books: which ones I need, how much they cost and if I can read them before the start of term.

These are general concerns held by the majority of students and it is not uncommon for many to spend £100s each year on top of everything else that comes with university life.

It may come as a surprise then that the University says that it is not compulsory for students to buy core texts. With this debate comes questions of: How do students feel about this issue? How effective are alternative solutions like the library? How can costs be kept to a minimum?

The statement from the University explains how ‘we are sympathetic to the costs faced by our students and keen to support them in a number of ways. We understand that many students prefer to use new copies of books, but no undergraduate student is expected to buy primary texts and they are not failing by not doing so.’

For some, there is also a serious lack of resources available

The common consensus among students, however, is that it is necessary to buy books. One example situation is that of Sophia Baker, a first-year English Literature student. She had been ‘saving up for all summer’ to get the texts before she started. Her experience demonstrates how incoming students assume the need to buy, with the difference in views from the University and students being sometimes unnecessarily costly and confusing.

In theory, the library is an obvious free alternative to purchasing texts: a wealth of resources offering materials for all students. A statement from the University promotes the library as enabling students to use ‘a single physical copy of a text or ongoing digital copy over a period of time’, though this does not work in practice. It is unclear whether this would cover a summer break or other extended period for students needing to borrow long-term. What is also not explained is the provision for students to be able to borrow enough books to cover their various modules. For some, there is also a serious lack of resources available.

One case is a third-year Psychology module, where the core textbook costs £100 and there are only roughly six copies in the library to accommodate a cohort of over 70 students. This is insufficient and impractical and if the alternative to spending hundreds of pounds is to use the library, then the big, shiny, gold building is nowhere near suitable enough to serve every student in the University.

The ‘ability to annotate and reread’ books in owning them is vital to understanding the texts

For the majority of students, the most effective method of accessing and using texts is to purchase them, so it is important that we get the best value for our money. Departmental book sales provide an option to save money: with both parties profiting from these sales, it is a popular solution for students to get texts at a much lower price than elsewhere. So long as course texts don’t change, book sales work for lots of students and more promotion of these should be done by the University.

One initiative to help reduce costs is a petition to subsidise books for English Literature students by third-year Luke Young. He explained to me that we ‘are consumers of the university who are entitled to a quality of product – value for money for materials’. He also felt that the ‘ability to annotate and reread’ books in owning them is vital to understanding the texts. In this respect, we should try and help students access books in the most cost-effective ways possible.

If the library is to be a more attractive alternative, some serious resources problems need to be addressed

The cost of books will always be a relevant matter to many students and we should be making every effort to try and keep the prices to a minimum. Students will be surprised at the University stance on this issue and if the library is to be a more attractive alternative, some serious resources problems need to be addressed.

For many, purchasing texts is the most effective option to understand the material. However, with growing concerns over costs, the question remains: to buy or not to buy?

English and Modern Languages student at the University of Birmingham. Arts and cultures advocate. All views presented are my own. (@painterrlucy)


1st November 2017 at 9:00 am

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