Australia’s Western Sydney University (WSU), in collaboration with ProQuest, announced on February 12 that it will begin providing first-year students with no-cost access to digital textbooks through WSU’s library. The program will include e-textbooks from more than 60 academic publishers, and will utilize ProQuest’s new Ebook Central platform. Through Ebook Central, ProQuest will manage rights and licenses associated with these e-textbooks, which will be accessible online or downloadable onto a student’s preferred device, including smartphones or tablets.
“Whilst the cost of College/University is not as great an issue in Australia as it is in the U.S., the overall cost of attending University (accommodation, food, clothes, etc.) is of great concern,” Michael Gonzalez, WSU associate librarian, resources and digital services, explained.
“When looking at implementing an initiative to ease the burden of coming to University, student feedback overwhelming pointed to the cost of textbooks as being a key concern,” he added. “Interestingly, the issue was the anxiety caused by the uncertainty of how much it would cost, many times students did not know what the financial/textbook commitment would be until they were a few weeks out from the start of semester.”
Citing the Australian government’s Productivity Commission and the 2015 Harper Review of Australian competition law, a February 2016 article in The Age explains that academic textbooks cost an average of 35 percent more in Australia than in overseas markets, due in large part to import restrictions. The article quotes a representative from Australia’s National Union of Students estimating that science, math, or economics majors can expect to spend $300 to $800 AUD on textbooks per semester, while students in other majors, such as nursing, might face bills as high as $2,000 AUD per semester.
Students in the United States can certainly sympathize. The College Board estimates that students attending four-year universities currently spend an average of $1,250 USD annually on textbooks.
Gonzalez said that WSU Library had been working on a number of approaches to help mitigate the cost of textbooks.
“The Library has a number of ongoing initiatives including reading list management/creation services, reader/custom book creation services, workflow alignment with campus bookstores…strategic acquisitions (direct negotiation with publishers on key titles), and librarian consultation services regarding the sourcing of learning materials from our comprehensive electronic collections,” he said. “Additionally, the Library has actively worked on being able to contribute to the university’s governance processes to ensure that equitable access to material is a key consideration when selecting materials. As a result, a number of policy and guideline initiatives have been implemented in relation to the use of publisher content in course delivery.”
This program, Gonzalez added, was the result of two years of WSU investigative work on the issue of textbooks and textbook costs.
“The initial process involved meeting with all major textbook providers to get an understanding on their process and where the key ‘pain points’ were in relation to making their content accessible,” Gonzales wrote. Following that, WSU officials conducted an assessment of viable platforms and, beginning in 2016, began looking into the feasibility of offering students no-cost access to e-textbooks.
WSU had recently reassessed an initiative through which the university provided all first-year students with personal iPads, deciding to discontinue the program. The proposal was made to redirect the funds for that project toward free access to textbooks instead, and WSU’s Office of the Chief Student Experience Officer, along with the library, began talks with ProQuest regarding content acquisition and delivery.
In a recent Daily Telegraph article reporting on the initiative, one current WSU student described the cost of books as “overwhelming,” and noted that she had already owned a tablet when she started her degree, making the university’s previous iPad program redundant for her and many other students. Students interviewed for the story sounded pleased with the new program, and WSU vice-chancellor and president Barney Glover suggested that the university may consider expanding the program to additional students down the road.
Meanwhile, the WSU library plans to leverage the program to reach first-year students and highlight the many other resources that the library provides.
“At the Library level, the initiative forms part of a broader strategy that looks at how we market our content, spaces, and services to the student body,” Gonzalez told LJ. “We see this as the first step in a broader [program] of works which will ensure that the library’s value is seen across all parts of the student life-cycle.”