My Thoughts on California’s Plan to Develop Free Textbooks

Here’s the latest on efforts in California to hold down the cost of college textbooks.

Newsom calls textbooks “racket,” proposes money to create free ones
By Mikail Zinshteyn
13 January 2021

Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to spend $15 million to develop more degree programs that include free textbooks, taking aim at the “usurious costs” of commercial textbooks today. The state spent $5 million on a similar program in 2016-17.

Right off hand, here are my thoughts on Newsom’s plan.

Will the AAUP (American Association of University Professors) insist that faculty should be academically free to not assign the “free textbooks” the government funds?

In other words, will the AAUP insist that faculty should be academically free to assign commercial textbooks instead?

Back in 2007, I testified before a House sub-committee led by Congressman Wu from Oregon. His sub-committee was looking into ways of dealing with the high cost of textbooks. At the time, my proposal involved working with the British Open University to buy-out the online courses they create on a routine basis and put the content in the public domain. I told the committee that the OU had the economy of scale and the experience to produce high-quality online courses (which in effect include content that could be used to replace a commercial textbook). Further, I said that there were three ways to finance this:

  1. form a coalition of around 1,000 schools that would kick in dues each year to fund the effort,
  2. form a coalition of state governments to fund the effort, or
  3. have the federal government put up the money.

Using the OU’s cost data, I showed the committee how much it would cost a coalition of 1,000 schools to pay for an extremely high-end cost estimate. Basically, I used the most expensive course the OU had ever developed as a cost estimate for all the courses they would develop going forward. This course had a $3 million dollar budget to develop content and maintain it for eight years. At the end of that time, they would tear it down and develop new course materials.

If divided evenly across 1,000 schools, the annual dues would come to $75,000 per school per year. At Berkeley, we had around 23,000 undergraduates, so this would come to $3.25 per year per student. At that time, full time students were paying around $900/year for commercial textbooks. Now I understand they pay around $1,300/year for commercial textbooks. So, despite the best efforts of the OER movement, the cost of commercial textbooks continues to rise at a rate that’s much higher than the rate of inflation.

Anyway, one of the main objections that I heard was that my plan would fail because faculty should be academically free to select commercial textbooks if they want too. Therefore, the fear was that we would set up a deal with the British OU, but it would fall on its face for lack of interest.

One of the reasons the British Open University works, however, is that they have a governance structure that’s entirely different from what we find at institutions like the California Community College System, CSU, and the UC system. At the British Open University, they have senior faculty who develop and maintain content. This is their main task and they do it on a work-for-hire basis – i.e. the OU owns the content. The senior faculty are paid a salary to develop the content. The OU also employs teaching faculty who work out of their teaching centers, which are scattered about the UK. There are around 300 teaching centers. The teaching faculty are obliged to use the content developed by the senior faculty, who generally work at OU headquarters in Milton Keynes England.

Obviously, the OU’s faculty employment contracts are designed to make sure the content gets developed, maintained, and used. However, I’m fairly certain that the AAUP would not want to see something like this develop in the US. The AAUP would see this as a major attack on academic freedom here in the US.

Simply outsourcing everything to the British OU would also rub many people the wrong way. Therefore, now I’m suggesting that the US should create its own nationwide Open University. However, we should make this the one school that will be tuition-free. This doesn’t go as far the the Bernie Sanders plan to make all public institutions of HE tuition-free, but it’s a start. Further, the US Open University should put its content in the public domain so that it can be used by other schools who want to offer free online textbooks and online courses developed by the US OU.

I would assume that a tuition-free US OU would attract a large enough student body to justify the money they would spend on developing their content. (The last time I checked, the British OU had around 230,000 students enrolled. This has to be a fairly large number to spread out the cost of developing high-quality courses.) Further, to make a US OU work would probably require the same sort of faculty employment contracts we find at the British OU.

Finally, when you start providing tuition-free education at some schools, but not others, you should expect that some of the schools that are not tuition-free will go belly up. This is unfortunate, but it would also represent an opportunity to the the putative US Open University. They too may want to have face-to-face teaching centers, just like the British OU. The could build them from scratch, but if schools do indeed start to go belly up, then the US Open University may be able to take over their campus facilities to establish a chain of teaching centers around the US.

If you want to know more about this idea, here’s one of my blog posts.

How to Create a Tuition Free, Public, Online University to Produce Free Online Textbooks and Courses

3 thoughts on “My Thoughts on California’s Plan to Develop Free Textbooks

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