Free textbooks for first-year university students could help improve retention rates

Free textbooks for first-year university students could help improve retention rates
Textbooks can be costly. Source: Shutterstock

Despite 20 years of focus on improving university retention rates, we are still losing one in five of our first-year students.

And the release of a new report by TEQSA again reminds us of the challenges of retention.

The report highlights, on average, universities have a 20 percent attrition rate. This builds on an article by The Australian earlier this year, which showed one in three university students failed to complete the course they began within six years of enrolling.

First-year challenges

The challenges first-year university students face in their journey are many – from adjusting to new expectations and environments, lack of university support in assisting with this transition, managing different work-life balance issues, being overwhelmed, and of course, costs.

Many of these issues are particularly significant for first-in-family students who often lack role models or social capital to adjust to expectations and unexpected challenges they confront.

This is not a unique Australian challenge and is confronting higher education institutes worldwide.

Free textbooks, a possible solution?

One solution that has been tried, implemented and is proving to be successful is the introduction of free textbooks for first-year students under the umbrella of “inclusive access”.

It is an important strategy because textbooks are both a powerful pedagogical tool that can keep students engaged and can be prohibitive to students as well as being highly cost-prohibitive.

A well-written and relevant textbook allows students to better understand the broader subject narrative. Source: Shutterstock

This is a strategy that started in the US and spread to the UK. Now my own institution, Western Sydney University, has implemented it, too.

The inclusive access textbook strategy takes a number of forms.

In some instances, this involves the university producing specific materials for students which they access for free or open source.

In others, such as the US, institutions have partnered with publishers and universities to pilot an inclusive access purchasing model, in which the cost of digital textbooks is included in a student’s course fee.

But why textbooks?

Success at university is a combination of pedagogical and social factors, which include support networks and university transition strategies.

Student performance and retention are enhanced by access to high-quality resources they can afford.

Textbooks are a powerful pedagogical tool that can improve engagement. In my own teaching experience, a well-written and relevant textbook allows students to better understand the broader subject narrative. That is, it is not about learning individual topics such as gender, class, race and technology. Rather, it allows the student to see the story of arc of the complex and intersectional factors that shape our societies.

It is this understanding of the broader subject area that means students can contextualise their own experiences and learn to apply the knowledge critically.

It is a tool I have used successfully. For example, when introducing a textbook – which students paid for at the time – I saw retention rates improve. We went from a drop-out rate of 22 percent to less than two percent, and in the feedback forms, students repeatedly quoted the textbook I introduced (and I should note, authored).

While there is little evidence of a direct link between access to a textbook and improving retention rates, high education consultants Academica did report free textbooks improved retention by up to 10 percent (though provided little detail).

Regardless, textbooks play a vital role in engaging students and improving the quality of education – which is likely to improve their chances of completion.

This has been progressively emphasised in research that dates back to the 1990s. The work is consistent in both low-income nations as well as wealthy countries. It is also important across disciplines.


As we continue to expand access to universities, such inclusive strategies have never been more important – and the TEQSA report highlights we still have a long way to go.

In the US, the emerging evidence is that this is proving effective, both in popularity and success.

Indiana University, for example, saw inclusive-access model started as a pilot in 2009. By the 2015-16 academic year, more than 40,000 students got at least one textbook through what the university calls its eText initiative.

In Australia, Australia National University has found Open Access textbooks are resulting in better educational outcomes and “a greater set of capabilities to start their careers with as they are more likely to complete their degrees”.

The implication is clear: to improve the attrition rates that remain all too high, we need to use the emerging technology to promote proven pedagogical methods. The availability of free textbooks is one such strategy that is starting to show results.

By James Arvanitakis, Professor in Cultural and Social Analysis, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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