Textbooks cost whaaaat?



£26 million.


So I’ve done some fag packet calculations this evening because I’m so increasingly concerned about the financial welfare of my students. When I was at the 2014 Open Ed Conference in Washington and first started hearing about open textbooks, I conducted a very quick and dirty survey with some of my students. I realised I had no idea about their textbook purchasing habits, or indeed, how this fitted into the wider context of their university experience. I really should write that up. There were 69 responses from science students. Nearly 80% had part time jobs. They on average spent (based on their estimations) between £300 and almost £1000 on text books.

What about our textbook recommendations?

Clearly our degree programmes are structured around credit-bearing modules, and it is a requirement of validation and professional body accreditation to make recommended reading lists. This can comprise books that are strongly recommended to accompany each module, plus those that provide supplementary reading. Of course, every book recommended is available in the library. But what if someone really did come along and buy – even some of them? And as academic teams, do we ever sit back and think of the prices of those books we are recommending?

What I’ve done is compiled the reading lists of all the compulsory modules for our Biomedical Science degree. This degree is offered at 91 universities across the UK, and I am pretty confident that their lists will look the same. This excludes similar courses – clinical sciences, medical sciences. Let’s just stick with Biomedical Science for now.

Students have 4 compulsory year 1 modules, 3 in year 2 and select 3 in year 3. These estimates assume a student will by a text relating to each important area, so there may be more than one strongly recommended text for some modules. I’ve also not accounted for one or two modules where the books from the first year will do for modules later on.

So to purchase a good range of books that = 33 texts.
For year 1 that = 10 texts.
7 books are priced way over £100.
Kindle versions are really no cheaper.

So this already sounds ludicrous, but it is what we recommend. So why do we recommend and advise on books in this way?


This was the Amazon price of the most expensive book recommended. My prices were based on Hardback cover, Paperback or Kindle versions, and I took the most expensive price on offer which may be through Amazon or a private provider. Of course there are second hand versions available, but unfortunately for science, go back more than one edition, and it will be generally out of date.

Text Ethical Issues



If all the students enrolled onto these modules purchased all of the books, the grand total is £289,710. The largest first year module has over 200 students and the most expensive book there is £184.99 for a hardback version of a core physiology text. In fact this was the text I purchased in my degree, so possibly a good investment over the years although mine is certainly 20+ years out of date. I certainly would look round for a previous edition, paperback version instead, but for a chunky core book, you’d still be talking around £50.

£26 million.

The thing that worries me most about education is the vast amount of duplication of lecture and content creation, that teaching resources are discarded when people leave or retire, and I’ve written about this before. Of course, any excuse to share Kevin Mear’s excellent cartoon capture of mine and David’s session “the cost of not going open“.

The cost of not going open is also unfathomable for students across the nation. Multiply up the cost of Biomedical Science textbooks from one university to the other 91 that offer the same course, and yes, that is the figure in the millions.

But what about some real numbers?

In my 2014 textbook survey, students claimed an average spend between £300-1000.

Huffington post article showed how costs had risen by over 800% over the last three decades in College Textbook Prices Increasing Faster Than Tuition And Inflation. Figures in the article are similar to my fag-packet ones, with students on average spending about $655 on textbooks, with the most expensive being around $300.

In the 2010 National Union of Students (NUS) report What are the Costs of Study and Living, over £1000 was attributed to books and additional equipment. Further NUS reports like Debt in the First Degree detail the financial burden that students experience, and how it leads to many holding down jobs whilst studying. And we often wonder why they don’t attend classes? What is the progression and success rate for those students who have to work? What is the impact financially of those who for whatever reason have to drop out, or delay a year because work has impacted on their study?

Anyway, this isn’t intended as an in-depth academic study of the area. But we absolutely need to do just that! We also need to be providing flexible study choices for students and think about the sustainability and cost-effectiveness of the education systems we offer.

Added resources:

Unite Students Insight Report: http://www.unite-students.com/about-us/insightreport

Florida Orange Grove student report: https://florida.theorangegrove.org/og/file/3a65c507-2510-42d7-814c-ffdefd394b6c/1/2016%20Student%20Textbook%20Survey%20Draft%205.pdf

Bryan Alexander blog post: https://bryanalexander.org/2016/09/03/one-week-of-bad-stories-about-higher-education-financing-and-i-feel-fine/