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.
"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.