Students are textual creatures

November 27, 1998

Books are the basic tool of education, and in buying them students seek value for money, says John Davies.

My ideal book would be not too heavy, have a nice cover, a clear contents page with chapters marked so you know exactly what each chapter is aboutI and a little summary at the end of each chapter." This response from a student was typical of those given to researchers asking about attitudes to books for The Publishers Association's recent survey, "The Student Market Today".

Contrary to the image presented in some quarters of students who would rather spend their time in the bar than the bookshop, the results of the survey indicated that students need and want books and see them as the basic tools of their education. For the really serious business of learning, the book remains the prime aid. Students are not losing their attachment to them.

Students are short of money; they get less support than they once did, but this can be overcome by part-time work and loans. Half of the student population spends less than £50 a term on books. This corresponds closely to the Department for Education and Employment's estimate that on average each student spends £130 a year on books.

The reading list is by far the dominant influence on students in choosing books. Of the students interviewed, 81 per cent said that they took notice of these lists. Students were not uncritical of reading lists, which were often thought to be too academic. The view was expressed that poor quality in reading lists results from an undervaluing of learning materials by lecturers and universities. In consequence, many students valued more the opinions of their peers. Recent research by the Council of Academic and Professional Publishers concludes that students buy about half of the books that reading lists deem to be essential to their studies.

Students buy books only if they give good value for money. Most students, 55 per cent, found the books they bought to be quite good in the context of their courses; 69 per cent of students make use of three-quarters of a book or more, and 41 per cent studied all or almost all of the text. For students, the most important benefit in a good textbook is clarity in language, design and format. Academics and publishers are tersely told to "cut the waffle" and to avoid presenting students with "several pages of useless information". Before buying books, students frequently evaluate them in shops and libraries to see if they possess the right attributes.

Almost three-quarters, 70 per cent, of students keep the books that they purchase. The second-hand book market accounts for only 8 per cent of sales. Where finances allow, many students prefer to own a new book in all its freshly minted glory. The price of the book is a consideration, but it is strongly related to value for money. Students are prepared to pay more for a title that best meets their needs. Broadly speaking, textbook prices appear to have remained stable in terms of inflation over the past 10 years.

Despite what has been predicted of the development of new information technologies in the Dearing report and The Learning Age , few students use computers for the study of content material related to a course. Most students have access to computers, but they use them mainly for word processing and assignment writing. No doubt they share the views of Umberto Eco, who remarked that, after 12 hours sitting in front of a computer, his eyes were like tennis balls, and wrote: "Books will remain indispensable not only for literature, but for any circumstances in which one needs to read carefully, to receive information and also to speculate about it. To read a computer screen is not the same as to read a book."

The survey results question the received wisdom that students buy books at the start of each year: 36 per cent of students do purchase at the start of the year, and 32 per cent buy books at the start of each term. However, per cent buy throughout the year, and 31 per cent of students buy books not on their reading lists.

Students gave bookshops a satisfaction rating of 78 per cent: 76 per cent of students said that they found the items they wanted in stock or ordered and received them very quickly. However, the majority of students found that on most occasions booksellers did not have sufficient copies of a title in stock, and in only 10 per cent of cases was the bookshop described as excellent.

A similar satisfaction rate, 74 per cent, was given to university libraries. Again, the main complaint was that there were too few copies of particular titles in libraries. Seventy-one per cent of students used their libraries at least two or three times a week. Book shortages in libraries can be a spur to book purchase, but these findings also reinforce recent representations to government that a portion of the additional funding that should be available to higher education from the comprehensive spending review and the introduction of tuition fees should be set aside for the provision of acquisitions in university libraries. Book-hungry students will demand no less.

Considerable work needs to be done before the book needs of students are fully satisfied. The Council of Academic and Professional Publishers is forming a task force to pursue the issues raised by the survey. Top of the agenda must be the improvement of the quality of reading lists.

The central message of the survey is that books and printed publications still hold pride of place in education. The National Year of Reading provides an excellent opportunity to emphasise the enduring value of books in all areas of teaching and learning.

John Davies is director, Council of Academic and Professional Publishers, The Publishers Association.

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