Should learning resources be provided as part of tuition fees

Previously we have discussed the arguments for including learning resources as part of tuition fees and the positive impact this can have on student recruitment, retention, engagement and attainment. This post considers some of the arguments against this approach.

Isn’t this what our library does?

It is impossible not to be impressed by the way universities throughout the country are re-designing their library space to create fantastic individual and group working spaces and to make the library a real student hub on campus (that is open 24/7). Equally impressive is the how the library staff are successfully aligned with and part of learning and teaching. (A really good discussion on the role of the library is David Lewis’s The Academic Library Re-imagined). And, importantly, student satisfaction with the services provided by their library remains consistently high at 86% (latest NSS results).

It remains the case, however, that the vast majority of the library budget goes on journals (around 85%) and other materials to support research. Journals are, of course, also great sources for undergraduate students but so are textbooks and the range of exciting new digital resources being launched by the major publishers. The space, environment and people are all there to support student learning and this is reflected in the high NSS scores enjoyed by libraries but the major provision of textbooks and new digital resources is not currently within the budget of most universities.

We would not want to restrict students to a narrow range of resources.

Whilst there are a number of very successful schemes where universities are providing specific learning resources to their students (Flying Start at Coventry, Reach at Worcester, the eBook schemes at Middlesex and East London), it is the case that for some universities this is not the preferred route. There is an alternative that still ensures that students get the resources they need to support their study and allows for choice. Many universities are providing students with ring-fenced funds to spend on learning resources – schemes such as Book Plus at Anglia Ruskin, Study Plus at Sunderland, TU Advance at Teesside plus many more take exactly this approach. What they have in common is they ring-fence funds so students know they can acquire learning resources and budget their cash for other purposes. A number of universities are also trying both approaches – providing specific resources for some students and ring fenced funding for others so there will be some interesting case studies in the near future comparing these two approaches.

It’s expensive.

Many of the schemes mentioned above see universities investing £2-3m a year in supporting student study and success. The return those universities get is not only more engaged students and higher attainment but also a financial return in terms of recruitment and improved retention (a 2%improvement in retention would, on average, fund a budget of £190 per student per year, 2% more students progress and all students benefit). Universities do not introduce these schemes for financial returns but they are there.

The eTextbook project is the largest single student experience project we are currently funding at Middlesex. Whilst the investment cost may be high, the return on investment is phenomenal. The project enhances our digital proposition, engages students more actively, helps us drive up our achievement targets, and positively impacts on how we envisage using our estate. It also puts quite some money back into students’ pockets, delivering demonstrable value to them or the fees they pay.

Director of Finance

And, of course, the cost of provisions will be going down as Open Educational Resources become more viable and digital pricing models are introduced (both will be topics of future posts).

Choice is a strong argument for considering ring fenced funding as the way to ensure that students have the resources they need in a way that complements the great service offered by the library. And it is important to consider these ring fenced funds very much as an investment not a cost.