Wednesday 14 July 2010

Library costs for distance education students

It's a lot easier to be a 'distance education' uni student today compared to the situation back in the 80s. In those days when I was enrolled at Charles Sturt University there was an endless stream of paperwork being sent to and fro by snail-mail - application forms, enrollment forms, course notes and assignments. In contrast my current studies at James Cook University have involved minimal paperwork - after sending in some certified copies of my previous academic results along with my application form, everything has been done online via email, online discussion forums, course materials provided electronically, and assignments sent in via email.

One thing that hasn't changed much for the better is library access to books. Back in the 80s I could search for a book in the library catalogue using a dial-up modem connection, and as a distance education student books I requested were mailed out to me. If I didn't want to pay return postage I could check out the library of one of the local university campuses, and you could get a library card for free access under reciprocal borrowing rights. These days, it's "user pays" - to borrow the same book I just requested from JCU from the local UTS library (one of my 'almae matres') I'd have to pay $77 for one year library membership with borrowing privileges. Given the transportation costs to make two trips to the UTS library (to borrow and return a book) would exceed the cost of paying return postage to mail a book back to JCU library, it isn't worth the time and effort to visit a university library in person. One benefit of being a Masters student is that loans are for the entire semester rather than just a few weeks.

However, although borrowing books by mail is reasonably convenient, I still feel that the university could afford to provide pre-paid return postage. After all, distance students don't utilise the on-campus facilities at all, so while the university charges distance students the same fees as other students, they save on the depreciation costs that would be incurred if they had to build the additional lecture rooms etc. that would be required if all the distance students were attending campus. In a truly 'user pays' system distance education students would have to pay postage in both directions (plus the cost of the librarian picking and packing the requested volumes), but we would pay reduced course fees commensurate with on-campus facilities not being utilised.

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