Should they be made to go buy the book?

`You could buy it if you went without a pint of beer every day for a month'; `No one has ever considered students clubbing together to share books'

John Robert Brown referees a lively debate between teachers and taught about the best policy for procuring students' reading material

I was chairing the college library committee the other day when an argument began. The student rep had been complaining about the absence of two or three titles from the library shelves. These were listed as "important" in the course document for his BA in jazz studies. The librarian replied that the library did hold a couple of copies of each of the books mentioned; the complaint was unjustified.

But this was only the start of the matter.

"Only two copies?" said the student. "There are nearly 70 of us in each year. Two books won't be much help."

"They're reference copies," observed a colleague.

"Only two?"

"Mr Chairman, when I was a student ..." began Gordon, a Cambridge-educated Head of School, best described as a Wallace Arnold type "... I had a wall full of books. Been buying them ever since I was eight years old. That's what studying is all about. Books. You buy your own."

"But times were different then," protested the student, tactfully avoiding saying anything about that being 30 years ago. "Nowadays nobody's got any money."

"No money? What about going without a few drinks? Or giving up smoking? I don't notice a lack of money hindering any of you in the college bar." Gordon hadn't been in the college bar for nigh on a decade, so I attributed his remark to speaker's licence in the cause of lively debate.

"I really must protest," said another colleague, Paul. He used the college bar, and looked as though he'd prefer to be there right then. "This is outrageous."

Since Gordon's very existence had always struck Paul as outrageous, today's expression of outrage was nothing new to any of us. "We all know that students have less and less money. I deal every day with cases of real hardship. For such people the buying of books is a major item."

"Mmm," murmured the student rep.

"And what about television?" asked Gordon.

We all duly wondered about television. "What about it?"

"I'll bet all your people who can't afford books have got televisions. And videos."

"That's Dickensian. Outrageous. There are certain minimum comforts one expects nowadays. You'll be expecting students to live in cold-water flats with outside lavatories next," said Paul.

"Of course I wouldn't." Gordon was just getting into his stride. "But when I hear undergraduates saying that they've got to hurry home to watch Neighbours, I do wonder ..." I called the meeting to order and looked at the suspected Neighbours enthusiast.

"Let's assume that there are a couple of copies of each of the three or four titles on your list available in the library. On reference. Would that be acceptable?" I asked.

"Not really. We can't share a couple of books among 50 or 60 people."

"Then buy some!" Gordon wouldn't let go. "They're not that dear."

He stared hard at Paul, not at the student. "The Grove Dictionary of Jazz is only 25 quid. You could pay for it by going without one pint of beer a day for a month."

"Oh, really. Mr Chairman," Paul appealed to me. "I don't think Gordon has any idea of the difficulties some of our students face."

Before I could reply, Gordon was again pursuing his point, cornering the student. "You're lucky that this isn't a very bookish course. Just think, if you were a law student, or a medical student, or a vet, or a dentist, you'd have to buy equipment as well as very expensive books."

"We have to buy our instruments," said the student, now somewhat flummoxed by Gordon's onslaught.

"I wouldn't mind betting that most of our students' instruments were bought long before they came to college," Gordon retorted.

In this matter he was probably correct. Paul, who had been writing something in the blank space at the bottom of his agenda, tried again. He raised his hand to speak, in a belated gesture to committee etiquette.

"A proposal, Paul?" I asked hopefully.

"I propose that we ask course leaders for a list of books; first a shortlist of essentials, then a longer list of less important books, designated as recommended. All taken from the course document."

Gordon's face was blank. Paul continued. "Prefer essential ones purchased; recommended ones optional. Limit the essential ones, you see."

"So. We have a proposal. Anyone going to second that?" I asked, anxious to move on. It was getting near lunchtime.

"We ought to have a student questionnaire," suggested the student.

Gordon wasn't listening. "Nobody has ever considered the possibility of students clubbing together to share an expensive book," he suggested. "Say, three to a book. Or perhaps we could have a secondhand book sale of course books each year."

"If no one can afford the damn books, where are we going to find any to sell?" asked Paul, exasperated.

I found my attention wandering. As the debate lurched on, I wondered what happened in other institutions. These arguments must have been heard in every college in the land. What was the wisest policy to pursue? What did others do?

Eventually, Paul shaped his proposal into a sentence or two that everyone agreed upon, and we also accepted the suggestion that we circulate a questionnaire. Compromise and prevarication had again helped us towards a solution.

After concluding the formal part of the meeting, I collected my papers and stood up to leave. "Coming to the refectory for lunch?" I asked Gordon.

"No thanks. Must do some shopping. Got a book token to spend."

A couple of days after that meeting, I noticed the newly published Book Trade Year Book. This stated that book sales were still increasing; in 1993 they were 5.2 per cent up on the previous year. The report also contained the news that Britain spends an average of £43.73 per head per adult on books. In Germany the figure is £49.98, in the US £53.43. The average British child between the ages of five and 14 had £35.43 spent on him or her. I mentioned these figures to a colleague whose daughter is just about to begin her studies towards becoming a vet. Her first-year book list will cost her around £l,000.

When our student questionnaire was eventually produced, the form requested students to tick boxes according to how much they were prepared to spend on books per year, with boxes for £20, £40, £60. Are we guilty of having low expectations? Or am I completely out of touch with current student spending power?

I feel that more information is needed. For all of us.

The writer is head of external relations at the City of Leeds College of Music.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

WORLDbytes: Two-Day Intensive Camera training and Shoot: Saturday 7th & Sunday 8th March

expenses on shoots: WORLDbytes: Volunteering with a media based charity,for a ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 4 Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A school in Tameside is currently l...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teaching Assistant

£50 - £70 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind are currently looking for ...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003