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What can be done about soaring textbook inflation?

Written By: Nic Mitchell - Sep• 20•19

Soaring textbook prices is yet another runaway cost facing students with the price of academic titles rising four times faster than the overall rate of inflation in the UK. Could a new subscription-based ‘Spotify’ of books be the answer?

When I was a distance learning student many years ago in the pre-digital age, a van used to pull up outside my house and deliver a parcel full of the books that I would need each month for essays and other assignments.

I was part of the first cohort of part-time students on the MSc in Public Relations by Distance Learning offered by the University of Stirling in Scotland. The cost of the textbooks was covered by the £2,500-a-year tuition fee, which I was lucky enough to have paid by my then employer.

Today’s students are rarely so lucky. They either have to fork out a small fortune to buy their own books on top of mounting tuition fees or join the queue to obtain a library loan. If they are fortunate their university might supply essential texts in hard or online format or they might find a second-hand version of the textbook at a knockdown price.

800% inflation in the US

But often they will have dip into their meagre funds and purchase essential academic titles, which have gone up in price by over 800% in the United States and by even more in recent decades in the United Kingdom, as I reported recently for University World News.

And isn’t annoying to know that once you have absorbed the information in key chapters you may never open the book you paid £50 or more to buy to complete an essay or two.

Perlego founder Gauthier Van Malderen

But help may be at hand in the form of a new online lending library set up by an enterprising Belgian-born graduate Gauthier Van Malderen.

He hit on his business idea while doing his master’s in entrepreneurship at the Judge Institute in Cambridge after discovering he was paying over £300 per term for textbook and launched Perlego as a digital alternative to having to buy key academic titles in 2016. It now has thousands of subscribers.

‘Spotify of Textbooks’

The Student Room has described Perlego as the ‘Spotify of Textbooks’ and UCAS promotes its 20% discounts for students on its Tech website.

Students are charged £12 per-month, or can pay a one-off £96 subscription for the year, and get access to more than 200,000 titles from over 2,300 publishers including Bloomsbury, Sage, Pearson’s, Princeton University Press and Simon & Schuster. The subscription works out as a fraction of the cost of a single print book, which on average cost £49, according to Perlego’s Vice-President Content Acquisition & Strategy Matthew Jones.

He said a big difference between Perlego’s approach and that of say Spotify for music or Netflix for films is that 65% of the subscription fee goes back to the publishers – who decide how much to pass on the authors.

Publishers are receptive

“The publishers are receptive to the model because it helps them monetise segments of the market that up until now they have struggled to access – price sensitive readers who have turned to second-hand sales or piracy,” Matthew told me for my University World News article.

But despite the obvious attraction of being able to access such a large library online from any device, the European higher education establishment appeared lukewarm about the new initiative when I asked them what they thought of Perlego’s offer.

Academic and library chiefs claimed they already offered most of the key texts that their students should need, either through digital material or hard copies of the textbooks on their library shelves.

The big problem occurs, of course, when there are not enough copies of these books to meet demand at key times.

Will students be willing to pay?

Lars Egeland, director of the Library at Oslo Met University

Lars Egeland, director of the University Library at Oslo Metropolitan University, or OsloMet, in Norway, was one of many I spoke who questioned whether students would be willing to pay £12-a-month to get additional books.

He said that while students are supposed to buy their own curriculum books, his impression was that they preferred to queue up in front of library scanners and copy what they need from printed material despite the cost of making paper-copies.

“As soon as you have made a digital copy you can distribute it to a whole group of students. That might be one reason why the sale of books in Norway decreased by around 7 per cent last year,” he said.

The response wasn’t all negative though and the Perlego initiative got a vote of confidence from Laksamana College of Business, a Brunei-subsidiary of the independently-run Kensington College of Business, London.

Useful way to monitor a group

Sivarajah Subramaniam, their Chief Operating Officer & Deputy Principal, told me: “Our academics and students are delighted with the service provided by Perlego and appreciate the selection of books available online. The reports they provide to us are very useful as we can monitor the group that uses their online library regularly.”

Markets outside the UK might turn out to Perlego’s best bet as more courses are offered in English, especially where it may be hard to get hold of enough copies of the required textbooks by traditional means.

Certainly Perlego’s Matthew Jones seems to think so. He told me the company’s key strategic objective is to make “a real push across Europe” by offering more textbooks for loan in languages other than English, with the current focus on adding German, Italian, French and Spanish titles.

Future plans also include extending the lending service to countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, where Jones believes there is huge potential.

Tempted to sign-up

If I was a student today, certainly on a postgraduate programme, I think I would be tempted to sign-up to Perlego’s service, especially when I wanted to read around a subject of particular interest.

But whether it can attract the critical mass it requires for long-term sustainability remains to be seen. I hope it does!

Read my article Online fee-paying libraries tackle textbook inflation in University World News here

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