They’re calling it "Ofsted for Universities". Proposed changes by the government may see universities rated in a similar way to high schools. Some universities may have mixed feelings about this, but the move could play into the hands of academic booksellers. As the second Academic Book Week gets underway, I believe that the recent government White Paper on education provides a massive opportunity for academic booksellers and publishers.
The government is urging a shift from a Research Excellence Framework (REF) to a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which aims to recognise and reward excellent teaching.
At the Booksellers Association’s Academic Booksellers Group (ABG), we hope the TEF will encourage lecturers to recommend particular titles and place primacy on the most effective books for teaching and learning. We know from feedback the students themselves give us that they learn better from physical books, that they respond well to textbook structure, so we are calling for the provision of textbooks to be mandatory at universities and for the role textbooks play in delivering improved student outcomes to be recognised. The Booksellers Association is backing this and we will be lobbying universities, key decision-makers and influencers to make this call.
The government is putting pressure on universities to deliver excellence back to students. In this climate – one in which students themselves are constantly asking what they are getting for their £9,000 in fees – I believe campus bookshops, and those serving students in non-campus universities, have a vital role to play as part of that added-value students now seek.
Students have become picky – and rightly so. Setting aside whether you think the “marketisation" of higher education is a good thing, there is no doubt that students, and their parents, are demanding more for their money. They are looking closely at the National Student Satisfaction survey and they are talking to their peers, to students they know at university, before they make their choices.
Bookshops are on the front foot here. Imagine a university open day and the prospective student asks, “Where is your bookshop?’ and is told that it doesn’t have one. That’s not a good selling point for the university. University bookshops are already offering so many extra services – bursary schemes, discounts on student essentials, advice, course recommendations. The role of university bookshops is becoming ever more important. Booksellers listen to students and vice versa – booksellers know which titles work for which courses and they can give valuable advice to students as a result.
We believe the shift to TEF is going to put the emphasis back on books, and indeed we are seeing some interesting moves in this area. Nottingham Trent, for example, is offering additional, faculty-led services, so that when students arrive for a particular course the faculty will have already bought the books for them and students can collect them for free from the campus bookshop. Interestingly, Nottingham Trent is now above Nottingham University on the NSS survey.
But we are also realistic about the world we live in and recognise that the "content offer" has to be mixed. At Blackwell we have Blackwell Learning, which offers a digital version of most print textbooks for a nominal £5 if students buy the print copy. The University of East London in Stratford is giving new students tablets with the textbook content already downloaded.
There are many exciting things happening in academic bookselling. At our revamped branches in Liverpool and Cardiff we are recognising the blurring of social and work spaces which is happening right across society, and so we’ve partnered with Café Nero to make a space where both can happen. Bookshops can be central to the student experience in this way.
We believe that high academic standards are best maintained by the use of peer-reviewed books, journals and, where appropriate, professionally-curated resources, and we believe bookshops are the central point where these can be provided to students.
In the 10 years I have been in academic bookselling, much has changed. Looking ahead, bookshops will have to be more flexible, they will have to be multi-channel, putting choice in the hands of students; and they will have to have deeper involvement with the university on the student experience.
Scott Hamilton is head of retail at Blackwell and chairman of the BA’s Academic Booksellers Group.