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So it's the time of year again when A-level results come out. Every summer, thousands of Sixth Formers across the country nervously unseal their scratchy, brown envelopes to find out if they have made it into university. Cue a televisual bombardment of jumping schoolgirls proudly clutching their results, teary friends hugging, and the heart-breaking shots of faces filled with disappointment. For those lucky enough to have secured a place in higher education, preparations for a new, exciting life in September will now begin. Aside from the pre-Freshers raid of WHSmith and perhaps an awkward sex talk from Mum and Dad, this will probably involve buying coursebooks.
Ah, the reading list. These beacons of academic wisdom are carefully compiled and published by universities annually to guide us in book-form through the next academic year. When you've finally managed to access it through the perplexing maze of mystery that is your university's online portal, you actually have to start buying the books. Prepare to spend serious cash.
Whether it's a poetry anthology or a medical textbook, you'll probably spend a good part of your degree reading. Heck, they even have big, old buildings on campus dedicated to the popular student past-time. But why does it have to be so expensive? The Huffington Post revealed recently that the cost of books and course essentials is the most common worry for students, causing more stress than poor living conditions and lack of access to teaching staff. And with some student book bills running into the hundreds, it's not hard to see why.
Last year, the NUS estimated that students would spend about £464 on books and equipment, compared to just £391 on transport. 'Leisure', if you're interested, which includes sport, hobbies and 'cultural activities' as well as the cost of attending your favourite club night, came in at £1,190. To me, these costs suggest two things - that, A) some people need to buy a hipflask, and that B) textbooks are bloody expensive.
As an eager, first-year undergraduate, I spent over £100 buying my books brand new online, and that's coming from a French student. Compare the shopping bill for some grammar guides and literary texts with that of a medic or a lawyer and you're laughing. True, there are cheaper alternatives, like purchasing second-hand. But any way you look at it, bookshopping is a pricey business. Even borrowing from the trusty library is tainted by short loan periods and high demand during essay week. Anyone who's searched fruitlessly for that book during five-hundred-people-doing-the-same-assignment chaos might have to face the dreaded scuttle down to Blackwell's to shell out for a text they may never use again.
The obscene cost of coursebooks is made thornier by the pain of obscene tuition fees. How universities can expect Arts students, for example, to pay £9,000 for a reading-based degree with the essential ingredients not included, I don't know. As for scientists who pay to use state-of-the-art facilities, they face a hefty reading list of pricey titles. A Biochemistry student at my institution spoke of a module listing hundreds-of-pounds worth of books which were 'essential' to pass. It's simply not fair to expect students, regardless of their subject, to spend a small fortune on crucial books when they are already paying £9,000 for tuition.
Expensive reading lists are an irritating, tiresome and unnecessary addition to the financial burden already placed on students, and it makes the annual £9,000 tuition fee seem even more of a rip-off than we originally thought. If universities fail to improve their perception of giving good value for money, students won't go. That's been shown by the high number of university places advertised in clearing this year - 181 courses unfilled at the University of Birmingham, 296 at Sheffield and 376 degrees looking for takers at Leeds on results morning.
What's more, whereas undergraduates don't have to worry about repaying tuition fees until their future salaries allow it, reading lists can burn a hole immediately and tangibly in your pocket. Principally, it's another cost faced by students who want to go to university. No wonder thousands of bright, young people are pursuing alternative, post-18 paths when they might otherwise study for a degree. It's not that university is the right option for everyone, but it's so expensive for those who want to go. The high cost of university books contributes to the cycle of educational elitism which institutions have tried so hard to fight off, and that's not something I want my generation to continue to be a part of.