Covid-19, Learning from Libraries, Teaching and Learning

Learning from Libraries: UK academic librarians support their teaching colleagues during Covid-19

Introduction

 “A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” Dr Samuel Johnson, English lexicographer, 1775

Dr Johnson’s words were more prophetic than he knew.  He lived in an age which thought of libraries as storage houses for thousands of codex volumes. And that, of course, is what libraries continued to be until the digital revolution which began in the 1990s with the digitisation of journals, and has become ever more sophisticated, until today some of the resources obtained from academic libraries are multimedia constructs which amalgamate “reusable objects” – or extracts – from many books and journals, the latter also available in several formats. Most university libraries in the UK now have “digital first” policies. The amount of budget devoted to print is small and shrinks annually.

The librarians who take care of these complex resources are themselves not simply guardians, but also skilled disseminators, negotiators and teachers – some have formal teaching qualifications and “team teach” with academics in the classroom, primarily to demonstrate the resources available and how they should be used.

Covid strikes

Covid 19 struck the UK in early spring 2020. Most universities allowed restricted access to the library and other buildings on campus at first; eventually the government ordered them to close completely.  Given all the effort and expense that had gone into building digital collections over the last twenty years and the rise and rise of remote access and distance learning, it might be thought that moving lectures and research online and relying mostly on digital resources would cause few problems. Was this indeed the case?

Gold Leaf contacted senior librarians at four UK universities to find out. Two – we have called them Sonia and Rosemary – work at traditional ‘Russell Group’ universities; and two – Frances and Heather – at post-1992 universities (or former polytechnics).

Academic (non)familiarity with digital resources

The first thing they noted was that most academics were not nearly as familiar with digital resources and how to deploy them as had been believed. Academics were nervous. They wanted “reassurance” from librarians. (Frances). “They did not know how to access resources off-campus.” (Heather).  “Very few had experience of delivering online or conducting seminars online.” (Sonia). “Many needed to upskill on the use of the video recording software that had previously only been used within on-campus teaching rooms.” (Rosemary).

Librarians to the rescue

Librarians already knew that academic proficiency in accessing digital resources and using Learning Management Systems [LMSs] was uneven, but they were surprised by how many academics turned out to be absolute beginners. “One of our Library teams, Learning Technologies, runs most of our Institutional support for our learning platform, Moodle, and they were heavily involved with training and support.” (Rosemary). “They were all asked to record their lectures in advance (to offset connectivity and access issues) and there was immediately an obvious need for a captioning service, which wasn’t widely available across the university at that time … the library teams supporting lecture capture and captioning required additional resource and an internal bulletin board to help facilitate moving [library] staff resource around to where it was most needed.” (Sonia) “We spent a lot of time creating and recording asynchronous sessions/presentations for staff to then add to modules on NOW [the LMS] for the students. For many courses, recorded material replaced some of the ‘traditional’ sessions we would have delivered face to face; we still did a lot of sessions ‘live’ on Teams, especially inductions for new students, but for the more detailed sessions there would often be a recording for the students to watch, followed up by ‘live’ Q&A sessions.” (Heather)

Resource management and acquisition

As important as helping academics to become competent in online delivery was for librarians to ensure that the resources they needed were available.  It was quickly discovered how many core texts were not available in e-format.  In the UK, librarians were massively aided by the Jisc free e-textbook programme, to which most of the big academic publishers contributed at the start of the first lockdown. However, this was discontinued by the start of the academic year 2020-2021, after which some e-textbooks proved unaffordable – the charges some publishers made for simultaneous user access sparked protests from librarians across the UK.  Certain libraries, predominantly those serving Russell Group universities, persevered with their policies of not buying textbooks, which triggered renewed interest in Open Access Resources [OERs], especially open textbooks. Libraries organised a range of coping strategies to deal with these problems, including themselves digitising as much content as was allowed under the terms of the Copyright Licensing Agency [CLA] licence; making greater use of Inter-Library Loan [ILL]; and setting up click-and-collect services to enable access to print books from the library.  

What helped academics most

We asked Sonia, Heather, Frances and Rosemary to name between three and five things they did that really helped academics during this period.  Aids mentioned by most of them included reviewing resource lists and obtaining as much of the content as possible in e-format; setting up a scanning service; encouraging academics to think early about the support they would need in the next academic year; and making the case for extra funding to cover all these new initiatives. Others were more individual: “We have started to see academics (especially in HSS) start to realise the benefits of Open Access. They have worked with the library to get a better idea of what is open to them and how to access it. And these are subject areas that have been pathologically against OA up to now.” (Frances). “Helping academics who had themselves paid for access but then had no idea how to make it discoverable or how to handle authentication.” (Heather) “Working in partnership with one of our book suppliers, we set up a service for postgraduate students and academic staff, where we ordered print books to be delivered directly to peoples’ homes. When we were able to re-open the library, we replaced this with a postal loans (and free returns) service.” (Sonia) “From Week 1 we set up an online temporary Webpage Support Hub, one each for Academics and Students, with FAQs and direct links to the library teams best placed to help.” (Rosemary)

What kinds of help do academics most need?

Asked what help academics still need as restrictions are only gradually being relaxed more than one year after the first lockdown, Frances says they still have a long way to go before they understand properly the business models and pricing principles operated by publishers. Heather says they still need help with resource list management and how to create their own online content. Sonia says she and her colleagues will work hard to introduce them to more Open Access materials. Rosemary says that long-term strategic teaching plans need to be put in place, because “it seems likely that off-campus study will be with us to stay – in some [subject] areas for the longer term – and that this will never fully revert.” 

Librarians’ standing rises

However else the Covid 19 years of 2020 and 2021 are viewed by historians of academia in years to come, one thing is surely clear: that academic librarians swiftly stepped up to the plate and made possible the continued undergraduate education of countless students, by supporting new kinds of teaching with their resourcefulness and know-how.  Nor has this gone unnoticed by their  contemporaries:

“I just wanted to say, as the Summer Term/exam season kicks off, what a wonderful job the library continues to do throughout this pandemic. I am extremely impressed with the breadth of support provided, and the sustained efficiency with which the team responds to queries/requests/issues.

“I have been especially pleasantly surprised by the efficiency of the Purchase Request process – it’s perhaps due to the nature of the works I request, but I’m consistently impressed by the speedy and helpful responses. It’s so encouraging to see how readily the library invests in requested resources, and I really appreciate the effort you go to to identify alternative ways to access a resource when purchasing it isn’t possible. Postal loans arrive promptly, and the process of requesting them is wonderfully straightforward – I have used this service a great deal, and my research would have suffered without it. My sincerest thanks to everyone in all corners of the team for your hard work and support 😊.” [Academic based at Sonia’s (Russell Group) university]

Dr Johnson would have been astonished.

[written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

This article was first published in German language on 26 May 2021 in “Digital Publishing Report, Sonderheft Bibliotheken” as well as on 7 June 2021 in “Digital Publishing Report, Sonderheft E-Learning“.

Mental Health, Students, Universities

Supporting student mental health at Nottingham Trent University

Paul Dodsley and Leah Wareham together form the hub of the student support service at Nottingham Trent University, where 30,000 students are studying at any one time.  Paul describes the service as “prevention-led” – its aim is to take hold of opportunities to support students before they slip into difficulties, rather than afterwards.  It has been running for about fifteen years and addresses a range of issues – sexual health, drug and alcohol, nutrition – but mental health awareness takes up approximately 70% of Paul’s time and all of Leah’s.

How can two people make a difference to such a large body of students?  Paul and Leah have been extremely innovative in their approach and established an impressive variety of ways to enable them to punch far above their weight. Firstly, the service partners with specialist organisations to make its resources go further – the NHS, for example, and Student Minds. Some of these partner organisations themselves deliver services on the campus.  Secondly, training is a big part of what Paul and Leah do.  They train academics to recognise signs of distress in students and how to help; they train the student Mental Health Champions – other students who help in a myriad of ways – and offer Student Minds – Look Out For your Mates workshops to all students, which awards students with a nationally recognised certificate and, it is hoped, gives them essential life skills.  

Leah’s specific role is to focus on communication and innovative ways of delivering the message about the types of support available. She says she tries to be as creative as possible.  At the start of the first lockdown she posted “top tips” for preserving a healthy mental outlook on the Student Support Instagram. From these have progressed Instagram “takeovers” which talk about mental health and how the service can help; and also adaptation of formerly in-person activities to allow them to take place online, such as Time to Talk – a big virtual event which included input from many of the partner services involved. She has also organised virtual events of all kinds.  Some are designed to work as occupational therapy – tie-dye tutorials on Instagram, for example, and cookery videos; life-drawing classes and yoga.

Leah (along with Zoe Mallett from the NTSU) is responsible for recruiting and training the Champions.  There were only two when she joined the university staff less than three years ago, having just graduated in Photography; now around 400 have signed up.  She says that the peer support they provide is invaluable: “It is really effective for students to get support from other students.” Some of the ways in which they deliver are “quite funky”.  Many of them are very engaged and themselves think of all sorts of ways of contributing – for example, by creating podcasts.  Some are gaining work experience.  Together with Paul and Leah, their aim is to improve attitude to self-care:  Paul mentioned each person having “a kitbag of support”.  All the work they do is completely voluntary – though Paul says their commitment is so great that he would like to be able to find a way to pay them.

Asked what kinds of advice and support students need, and whether he feels they are more dependent than students used to be in the past, Paul is supportive of the present student generation.  He says the level of support that is now available is brilliant when compared with, say, twenty years ago, when he was a student at NTU.  University attendance has always brought its own challenges, even before the various lockdowns. To these have now been added more uncertainty regarding jobs for graduates and what will happen after they graduate.  He believes that one of the key contributions of the service is to enable students to leave the university better equipped to deal with whatever life throws at them next. 

The impact of the pandemic and consequent lockdowns has been significant.  “Each lockdown has put an increased burden on mental health,” Paul says.  “It’s difficult to know whether it’s worse for the first years, who have never known ‘normal’ university life, or for the second and third years, who have experienced what it was like and therefore know what they are missing, for some or all the remaining time they have left here.” Students are not used to isolation. In non-lockdown circumstances, they meet regularly and this gives them a sense of belonging, of being part of a community.  Many students have welcomed the online support now on offer.  Paul says he recently read a comment in a study issues by the Mental Health Foundation about the present situation which struck him as particularly apposite: “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat.”  The message he and Leah want to get across is, “If you’re struggling, that’s OK and perfectly understandable, but don’t suffer in silence.”

Asked what has made her most proud, Leah says it is the work that the champions have done.  “They get the student voice across, especially now they have started becoming more involved in online activity through social media and our events that run peer-to-peer sessions online. The work they do is amazing and they keep up with it – it doesn’t dwindle over time.”

Asked how he sees the future, Paul says he thinks the service will keep on building up its identity and raising awareness of “what we do”.   He would like to be able to focus more on promoting positive health and mental self-care.  “And of course, we need more staff.” That is perhaps undeniable; but it’s also undeniably true that what Paul and Leah have achieved is also “amazing”.

[written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

Mental Health, Students

The mental well-being of our students

Whilst at Gold Leaf we believe it is alarmist – and not at all helpful – to call the present generation of students “lost” because of the impact of the pandemic and various lockdowns on their education – in our experience most young people are astonishingly brave and resilient – it has to be acknowledged that everyone who has enjoyed working for a degree in happier times must sympathise with their plight.  Even though many universities around the world have done sterling work in supporting students as much as possible with online learning and blended learning and librarians have both rapidly increased their electronic holdings and made sure that academics and students are well-versed in using them, it cannot be denied that students are missing out on many of the things that make university special: for example, fieldwork expeditions and collaborative lab-work; trips to the theatre, concerts and art galleries and the other rich cultural experiences usually available to undergraduates; even simply hanging out with their peers. On top of this, students may be worried that degrees awarded under today’s restricted studying conditions may be “worth less” than “normal” and that even if the qualifications are recognised, there will be few jobs waiting for those who have qualified.

It is therefore not surprising that concern for students’ mental well-being has increased substantially throughout the past year. A significant amount of research has now been undertaken on this issue. One study, led by the University of Glasgow and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that thoughts of suicide among undergraduates encouraged by 8 – 10% in just three months.  A survey conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that students now report considerably lower levels of personal well-being than the population as a whole. Dartmouth College, in the USA, detected spikes in student depression and anxiety as early as March 2020, when students were first encouraged to leave the campus and conduct most of their learning online. In January, French students organised a series of nationwide protests to draw attention to rising mental health problems caused by the pandemic.  Special mental health counsellors appointed at the University of Lyon say they have been overwhelmed by the demands placed on their services.  Two undergraduates at this university have already taken their own lives this year. An article in The Lancet points out that not much is known about the effects of large-scale pandemics on the health of children and adolescents[1]. As well as having a profound impact on their education, social distancing may exacerbate the risk of other threats to young people, such as physical, mental or sexual abuse. If their parents lose their jobs, this also undermines their sense of security.

Last year UNESCO started its Minding our Minds campaign. Eric Falt, Director and UNESCO Representative to Bhutan, India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, wrote: “It will take all of our collective effort and focus to ensure that students are getting the care they need to succeed.” To highlight the importance of the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on the mental health of marginalized communities, UNESCO New Delhi has created five awareness posters, which are available in four languages English, Hindi, Sinhala and Tamil.

Clearly undergraduate mental health is vitally important to everyone: today’s undergraduates will be the scientists, politicians, artists and writers of the future.  Over the next few weeks, we are therefore planning to dig a little deeper into how some universities are supporting the mental health of their undergraduate communities.  If, having read this post, you would like to contribute or comment, we shall be delighted to hear from you.

[written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]


[1] Mental health effects of school closures during COVID-19 – The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health

Learning from Libraries, Libraries, Universities

Learning from Libraries – an interview with Roxanne Missingham

Roxanne Missingham, University Librarian and the Australian National University (ANU) describes what it means to her to be a librarian

Tell us a bit about your career.  Did you always want to be a librarian?  Where was your first job?  Where did you get your library qualification?

My mother says that I wanted to be a librarian when I was in primary school! My first degree at university was a Bachelor of Science.  I studied at ANU: lots of Maths and Psychology, with a minor in English.

There weren’t many jobs for women in science and so I did a postgraduate qualification in librarianship at what is now the University of Canberra. I was inspired by such amazingly dedicated lecturers as Maxine Rochester and John Balnaves and was extremely fortunately to be recruited to what was essentially a graduate trainee program at the National Library of Australia.

I loved my colleagues, helping to build the library collection and the ethos of making a national difference through libraries. The diversity of work is fabulous – as are the regular challenges and opportunities.

Tell us about your present job.  What do you like most about it?  And least?

I have been at the Australian National Library as University Librarian for almost 9 years. It is my first job in the higher education sector. When I was interviewed (there were 9 on the panel!) my key points, as I recall, were a passion for inspiring excellence through student experience and an ability to deal with complex clients. I had been Parliamentary Librarian for 7 years.  The interviewing panel thought there might be some similarities between serving members of parliament and serving academics.

At the university my portfolio includes libraries, archives, digital scholarship, the ANU Press and digital literacy. The team is amazing: we work with everyone in the university in some way. My passion is connecting people to knowledge and pretty much all aspects of this are included in the work of the Division.

I love working with my colleagues on new ways to open up access to knowledge and ideas.

Now for the confession, I would love to do less paperwork and use more of that time to work with the team!

Tell us a bit more about ANU Press, why it was set up, your own role.

ANU Press was established in 2003 and officially launched in 2004, with the aim of exploring and enabling new modes of scholarly publishing. It was Australia’s first fully open access scholarly press. We have worked through various strategic changes to foster innovation in scholarly publishing, find new ways to engage with authors and students and move beyond the concept of knowledge trapped behind paywalls.  We were initially focused on communicating the research of ANU scholars and have now increased the eligibility authors who may publish and steadily added other new dimensions.

I am very fortunate to be head of the division in which the ANU Press sits and to work on the Advisory Committee.

What has the pandemic meant for you? What have been its highs and lows?

Life in 2020 has been an endless parade of calamities. We have had bushfires, campus closures owing to smoke, hailstorms which destroyed library and other roofs and very many cars and then COVID-19.

I think a big high is the fantastic support within our teams for colleagues, assisting and caring for each other in times of stress.  The strong team approach across the whole university has been very inspiring.

As we reach the end of the year, perhaps the two lows are having to say farewell to many staff owing to the university’s downsizing; and the fact that having to endure so many disasters in such a short space of time has been wearing on the heart and soul of the community. We have not been able to engage as deeply or personally because of the time we’ve had to spend off campus and the move to digital communication, even though under the circumstances that was, of course, very appropriate.

What is the most challenging thing you’ve had to deal with in your career; and the thing that makes you most proud?

I think the most challenging matter this year has been the separation of so many staff from our team, people whose contribution to the university and division has been terrific over a sustained period. They remain part of our family but have found that financially it was the right time for them to go.

I am extremely proud of the achievements of the team in working together and keeping the heart and soul of the university alive through all the work of the division. We have created new relationships with students and academics to make the university a success in 2020.

If you look into your crystal ball, what do you think will happen to librarianship in Australia (or everywhere if you prefer) in the next 3 – 5 years?

Given the changes taking place in teaching, I think that academic librarianship will focus on contributions to education with a greater sense of partnership, driven partly by the need to foster the digital education of staff and the academic community as a whole. This also brings to the fore the imperative for greater experimentation in digital delivery, discovery and scholarship. The spirit of partnership needs to extend to our work with publishers. I think OA will mature and that new models must be supported that will have disciplinary nuances and deep library involvement.

Library education is up for major debate. The evolution of micro-credentials and new forms of skilling must focus on “snack packs” to upgrade our knowledge and build stronger partnerships with employers.

Finally linking up the GLAM sector to tackle fundamental policy issues – such as copyright – is essential

Would you mind saying a little more about your personal life – children, hobbies, etc.?

Life provides many challenges and the joy of my husband’s and my life are our two grandchildren, who are aged 2 and 7 – princesses with a lot of energy. Not to forget our three grown up children!  I am a keen quilter – every time I complete a quilt I swear not to buy more fabric as the stash is overtaking the spare room. My current project is a quilt for the youngest grandchild, which has an image from Totoro of May: Saski, Totoro and the two small animals are appliquéd in the middle.  And the garden and chickens are calling too!

[This interview was conducted by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

QuoScript

QuoScript – “Whither Writing” – is launched

Linda Bennett describes QuoScript, a new publishing venture

QuoScript is a new publishing venture set up by myself and a group of colleagues who together have many years’ experience of working in different roles within the publishing industry. We are primarily driven by the desire to give new authors a chance.  Many publishing companies have reduced or halted their publishing programmes because of Covid; and some agents are not taking on new authors. 

We have decided to accept fiction submissions only during QuoScript’s first year, primarily from crime writers, to be published under the Poisoned Chalice imprint and Young Adult authors, whom we’ll publish under the Tusk imprint.  Later we want to branch out much more – we’re interested in various kinds of non-fiction, for example, including academic monographs; and we’d like to be able to cover the whole fiction spectrum.

Building a viable supply chain for a new small publisher has been fun but challenging.  We’re fortunate to have the support of the Ingram group and Print Force – together they fulfil most of the main supply chain functions.  Our two main supply-chain partners and two other small presses whose books we shall host will help us to achieve critical mass. We’re also keen to harness new design talent to work on book jackets and typesetting.

The other two presses I mentioned are, first of all, Hope and Plum Publishing, part of SHHH media, which was set up by Stacey Haber, a talented author, playwright and TV script writer. Stacey presents her own programme on Sky Feel Good Factor TV.  It is called “Girls Talk” and first airs on 7th November. She publishes a range of fiction, non-fiction and children’s books. The other press is DoubleA Publishing, a Ukraine-based independent publishing company set up by Andrew Afonin, who is passionate about disseminating the work of Ukrainian authors. As QuoScript develops we’ll choose other independent publishers that fit in well with our ethos, which is all about good writing.  We shall welcome authors who want to write about a wide spectrum of topics and from all kinds of backgrounds; but they must be united in their ability to write powerfully and compellingly.  And any publishers who partner with us must be passionately committed to all the books on their list. Initially, because our focus is on trade fiction, our first publications will be in paperback and e-book format only.  Later we may commission books that really need to be made available in hardback – but that’s quite a long way off.

 There are details on the website about how to submit MSSs –  see www.quoscript.co.uk. This month we’ve also launched a writing competition: see https://quoscript.co.uk/national-novel-writing-month-the-quoscript-challenge/

Gold Leaf will provide occasional updates on QuoScript as it develops.

[Written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

General, Students, Trends in Publishing

Is the British education system racially prejudiced?

This is a delicate topic, but as it’s so much in the news at the moment, we thought we ought not to ignore it.

There is, of course, a mountain of statistics to support the assertion that our education system is stacked against people from BAME communities, but also other evidence to illustrate that black and Asian students often go on to be spectacular achievers if they succeed in being admitted to tertiary education. Usually, but not always, these students encounter less prejudice at university – probably because many universities exercise a different kind of prejudice: they are meritocracies. This may be accompanied by the strong feeling in some of the older generation of academics that all that has to be overcome is the same kind of prejudice as that of working-class undergraduates that they themselves triumphed against in the 1970s and 1980s. To muddy the waters even further, white working-class boys emerged some time ago as the group least likely to succeed academically.

It is an unquestionable fact that to get to university you have to succeed at school. If there is racial prejudice, therefore, it seems likely that this is where the problem may lie. Is racial prejudice institutionalised, perhaps covertly, in our schools?

We interviewed a senior teacher who has worked for many years in one of the UK’s largest and most successful comprehensive schools. For obvious reasons, he wishes to remain anonymous, but he spoke to us with passion about this issue.

The school in question was created by the amalgamation of two grammar schools in the 1970s, after which the combined institution became comprehensive. Although the two schools had always educated pupils of different nationalities and creeds, they had been mainly white and predominantly European, as well as academically able in the conventional sense. The school immediately at that point began to enrol pupils from BAME (though this collective term had not been coined then) backgrounds as well, until eventually the school’s population represented over thirty-five different home languages.

There were many difficulties at first which, although the school recognised them, were difficult to resolve. Some teachers were undoubtedly racially prejudiced or old-fashioned meritocrats who were suspicious of or impatient with people from different cultures. As time went on and these older teachers retired, the school was able to develop robust recruitment techniques which ensured that all the staff – including a growing army of non-teaching and support staff, from caretakers to teaching assistants to specialists in the education of children with identified needs to attendance and home liaison officers – were much more representative of the school’s population make-up, shared the same values and agreed on how they would work with students from all backgrounds to provide each child with the support and personal resources to progress well educationally. The school considered it vital to have transparency and clarity through policies carefully constructed by consultation that embraced governors, staff, parents, children and other relevant stakeholders.  

Cultural stereotyping was a more subtle problem. Well-meaning teachers and external influencers might, for example, think it a good idea to set up a steel band for black students and in fact the school experimented with this, but discovered that such a move immediately set participating pupils apart and formed them into a kind of elite. To be properly egalitarian and truly non-racist, the school needed, perhaps by deliberately accommodating particular cultural needs, to encourage BAME students to feel able, by choice, to participate in any school activity. Celebration of individual achievement became central to the approach.

Addressing behavioural issues was another important factor and the students themselves had to understand that, when they were being asked to modify their behaviour, this wasn’t a reflection on their culture, but simply a request to act with courtesy and consideration for others. “At any one time, black students never formed more than five per cent of the school’s total numbers – there were many more Asians – but the black students seemed to be everywhere. The lads in particular were strapping and noisily extrovert. If someone slipped and fell in the corridor, they would find it hilarious and laugh and shout and point. They had to learn to be more aware of the effect they were having on others. It was vital to develop in all pupils the capacity for empathy, rather than simply applying behavioural sanctions.”

Some of these same black pupils proved to be very academically capable indeed once they understood they were valued for themselves and settled down to work. However, over time the school’s own attitude towards what constituted success changed dramatically. Its roots were in the traditional grammar school system of hothousing high academic achievers and rewarding academic success, but by the 1990s its guiding principle was that every student was of equal importance and that each could achieve things which all could celebrate. Mutual kindness and mutual appreciation of talents of all kinds became its mantra. The emphasis was firmly on individual and personal needs and how those should best be met, whether they be educational, medical, cultural, religious, gender-related, social or even financial. It was clear that the school’s internal communication of pupil-specific information must be first-rate, confidential and effectively applied.

Both BAME and ‘Caucasian’ students who attended this school are now doctors, teachers, scientists, academics, members of the police or armed forces and politicians. Some are actors, artists and singers. Others are plumbers, bricklayers, secretaries and hairdressers. Across all walks of life, many have kept in touch with each other. Some return to the school to encourage those studying there today, when the students come from even more diverse backgrounds than previously. The school is now one of the most successful comprehensive schools in the country.  It is, however, the painful truth that not all UK schools have taken a similar approach. Schools with less mixed populations perhaps have not developed the expertise or felt the need to pay so much attention to the preparation of their pupils for the multi-cultural world they will enter as employees; such institutions may not have the resources, both human and material, to reflect the rich mixture of British society. Yet they have a duty to prepare their pupils not just with academic skills, but with the social capability that comes from knowledge and understanding of others and with values that will prevent any inclination to stereotype those who may seem different. As I was writing this, the announcement was made that this year’s British Bookseller Awards were dominated by black female authors. Candace Carty-Williams won overall book of the year with her debut novel Queenie; Oyinkan Braithwaite won crime and thriller book of the year with My Sister the Serial Killer; and Bernardine Evaristo, joint Booker winner for Girl, Woman, Other was named Author of the Year.

[Written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

Academic Publishing, Bookselling, Digital Publishing, VAT

Don’t Tax Reading: the case against VAT on knowledge

The removal of VAT from electronic publications earlier this year was the triumphant culmination of a vigorous campaign that had been led by publishers, booksellers, writers, librarians, teachers and readers over many decades to protest against taxation on knowledge. Originally it was started to save print books from tax: after VAT was introduced to the UK in 1973, successive governments had cast envious eyes on the thriving book and newspaper industries and debated whether to slap this surcharge  on their products, perhaps at a lower rate than for other consumer goods, as other European countries had already done.  Protests began immediately; there were crises as the threat reappeared periodically, which the campaigners always won – VAT has never been imposed on printed publications in the UK – but sometimes the victory was a close-run thing.

To a significant extent, the advent of e-books hobbled the power of those watchful that the government of the day might target print books again. VAT was imposed on e-books immediately they became commercially available, because it was argued that they should be treated in the same way as the products of the music industry – records, cassettes and CDs. Publishers, especially, were worried that if they protested too loudly the government might retaliate by imposing VAT on print publications rather than removing it from electronic ones.

When Annika wrote about the freeing of electronic publications from VAT a few weeks ago, I remembered a book had been published detailing the early struggles.  I have a copy and had hoped to quote from it.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it then, but yesterday was finally reunited with it. Published in 1985, it’s even more venerable than I thought.  It was designed to be submitted to the Treasury when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and Nigel Lawson the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and commissioned by an organisation called the National Book Committee.  (I’ve looked this up: it no longer exists, but in the foreword, contributed by its “Chairman” [sic], Baroness David, she explains that it represented “all the major organisations concerned with the production and reading of books”.) It was written by Marita Evans of W H Smith and Brenda White of CPI Associates (a research organisation similar to Gold Leaf), supported by several prominent academics, including Dr Frank Fishwick, of the University of Cranfield (with whom Gold Leaf subsequently worked on a JISC report on e-books).

Don’t Tax Reading: the case against VAT on knowledge is a fascinating compendium of history, economic argument, statements from prominent authors and accounts of the legal and political debates on the dissemination of knowledge that have taken place since the middle of the nineteenth century. Below are some selected quotations that seem particularly relevant.

“In 1941, in the darkest days of the Second World War, when the Government needed every penny it could get, the idea of a tax on books, on knowledge, was rejected.”

“Any attempt to separate out books of ‘non-educational value’ for taxation would lead to absurd judgements having to be made.  Fiction and poetry, for example, classical or popular, are just as important to understanding, literacy, and to our culture as serious works for formal education.”

“It seems that each generation has had to fight for the independence of the written word .. if this generation is to win its round, we must use words and tactics that are relevant today.  The arguments of the eighties.”

“The Government record for skimping on school books is abysmal: where among every twenty young adults leaving school – not even a classroom-full – there is at least one who is effectively illiterate; where a Government that is introducing huge training programmes to make sure that school-leavers are employable in our fast-thinking, fast-technology society, is now proposing to tax the basis by which those children’s minds are trained – the written word.”

“The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education stated the following: ‘At a time when the Government is crying out for a better-educated work force, imposing a tax on books is not only illogical, it is stark-raving mad. Further and higher education students would need an extra £1.5 million in grants to enable them to buy their books if VAT is imposed. Will the Government provide this? We think not. Students will be penalised and their access to books reduced. And those students already least able to afford books will be the hardest hit.’”

Some of these statements seem quaint to us now. Grants? Today’s students should be so lucky! And  in 1985 students paid no tuition fees. The £1.5 million figure given as a proportion of overall student spend on books is illuminating: in 1985 the proportion of school leavers entering Higher Education was still only approximately 15%. Most were spending – and expected to spend – more in actual amounts – i.e., not adjusted for inflation – than students expect to spend today. The concept of the UK aspiring to a “fast-thinking, fast-technology society” in 1985 may seem risible to us; but no doubt future generations will be having a similar laugh at our expense in 2055.

However, much of the information captured in these extracts raises serious questions about how much progress we’ve made in the intervening 35 years. The Literacy Trust says that 1 in 7 adults in the UK today has the reading age of a child of nine or lower. There is still under-investment in our schools. In 2015, Iain Duncan Smith, the then Work and Pensions Secretary and prominent member of the Cameron administration, congratulated the government because the number of children living in poverty had “dropped to 2.3 million” – “the lowest since the mid-1980s”.  That figure was shocking; and even more shocking was that the government thought achieving the child poverty level of thirty years before was a cause for celebration. There has been further deterioration since: the Children’s Society estimates that four million children are living in poverty in 2020.

Social imbalance and educational under-achievement are of course the result of a complex mixture of factors; they can’t be attributed to a single cause. Neither can a “silver bullet” be conjured to remedy them. However, enabling affordable access to knowledge in all its formats has to be the greatest single action a government can take to alleviate these ills. Let us hope that the removal of VAT from every kind of publication is permanent; but if its shadow looms again, key stakeholders must surely unite again to protect knowledge.

[Written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

General, Students

The Covid-19 crisis: views of a student

We asked Daphne van Engeland, who studies in her second year towards a BA in Digital Marketing at Coventry University about her experiences.

Please tell us a little bit about the courses and lectures you attend.

Each of my courses has two one-hour lectures and one two-hour seminar per week. The lectures can be in groups of over 100 students as some marketing courses overlap and the seminars are more interactive in smaller groups, typically around 15 students. During lectures we’d sit in a big hall and listen to the lecturer, while seminars have a more practical focus and we often have to do assignments which we present afterwards.

Which impact did Covid-19 have on your university and you?

From the end of March, Coventry University suspended all in-person teaching and assessments and then continued closing down the campus further as the situation worsened. When the announcement was made, I rebooked my flight to the Netherlands (where I am original from) that was scheduled for April to one that very same week so I could be safe at home with my family. I have been continuing to study from here.

Tell us about your experience of learning remotely.

The semester at Coventry University was already coming to an end, so I ended up not having any live remote lectures. One teacher did upload videos of the topics that he covered, which was about the coursework. We used Microsoft Teams to have feedback sessions for our coursework, which was new but very useful. I did not have any exams this semester, but from other years of my course I knew they had to complete exams in essay-style and students would have a few hours on a set day to complete them. Cheating does not really work in this case because the exams are all about showing understanding and examples.

Which challenges have affected you most? 

I found it very challenging to be home all the time and get myself to do the work as the situation is stressful for me. Having set days and hours to work on coursework helped me a lot. With group work it is a big challenge that we can’t go and sit down somewhere to work together. Having meetings on Microsoft Teams helps, but I noticed there were more miscommunications than we experienced in previous courseworks. Communication from lecturers differs by person, but they are mostly responsive to emails and do their best to make things work. I feel like it’s important to remember this is new for them too.

Has the Library been able to support you?

The online library at Coventry University has always been quite extensive, and that helps a lot now. Luckily, we get our books at the university included in the tuition fees, so I did not need to borrow any. As I am not in the city at the moment, I unfortunately don’t know if they can still provide physical books. I think they will follow the government rules and open up as soon as they are allowed to and can do so safely.

Which learning resources (books, textbooks, databases, software etc.) are you using for remote teaching? Have these changed?

My online resources often include academic articles and business reports. Those were mostly online anyway, so that has not changed a lot. The textbooks that I did need were mine already. My bank also offered a free subscription to a website of resources, which helped me find some more things I needed. What I would like is if some books came with a code to download the ebook version. I could not take all my books with me, and having them online or on my eReader would have helped me a lot.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I think it will take a while before the large lectures will be started up again and I think that in future the university will be more prepared for situations like these. I think classes will be smaller as long as there is no vaccine and that they will keep on providing online content for those at risk of severe illness. Coventry University is moving to a new learning space as a replacement of Moodle, which will hopefully make remote learning easier. I hope that remote learning will be available even when the university opens again. I personally like being able to watch lectures at home, especially when I’m ill.

Please tell us a bit about yourself

I am from the Netherlands where I studied a few years of European Studies before moving to the UK. In my downtime I like reading and gaming. My love for gaming led me to start streaming on Twitch, which is a hobby for now but I’m hoping that it can be part of my career in the future. I have just started a marketing internship for the summer and will be going on straight to my third year at university after that.

[Written by Annika Bennett, Gold Leaf]

General, Lecturers, pedagogy

The Covid-19 crisis: views of a Creative Writing lecturer

Dr Judith Heneghan, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester tells us how the Covid lockdown is affecting her work.

About the University of Winchester

The University of Winchester traces its origins to a teacher training institution founded in the mid-nineteenth century. This became known as King Alfred’s College, and in the late twentieth century it began to offer degrees in the humanities and performing arts, as well as education. It was awarded university status in 2005 and now consists of four main faculties: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Business, Law and Sport and Education, Health and Social Care. There are approximately 8000 students, the majority from the UK (roughly 6% are from overseas). The Creative Writing programmes are located within the Department of English, Creative Writing and American Studies and offer a range of single and combined honours degrees at the levels of BA, MA and PhD.

 Please tell us a little bit about the disciplines you teach in and the courses you teach. How many students are in each course/lecture, the make-up of the student body. How did you typically teach before the Covid-19 crisis?

I teach Creative Writing at undergraduate and Masters levels, and also supervise a couple of PhD students. Creative Writing as a discipline is long-established at Winchester. Cohorts are a mix of home and international students, pursuing full-time or part-time study. Classes usually take the form of classroom-based seminars for groups of between 14 and 28 students. The writing workshop is a key component of our approach and features peer critiquing and small-group discussion.

Please describe the restrictions that have been applied at your city and your institution as a result of the coronavirus.  When were they first put in place?  Are your offices closed? If so, are you and your colleagues working from home?  How do you do this in practice?

From 23 March onwards, when the nationwide ‘lockdown’ began, the University closed to all but essential personnel. I had already begun to work from home and therefore continued to do so. I arranged to pick up a monitor from my office so that I could have two screens set up on my dining room table, which has now become my ‘home office’. Email traffic has not been much changed by lockdown, but I have been using my mobile phone to a much greater extent, mainly to communicate with colleagues.

Have you been teaching remotely, and if so, for how long? Is it a new experience for you and the students? Which software do you use and is it working well? What about exams? 

The timing of semesters at Winchester and the nature of Creative Writing as a subject means that I have not yet had to do very much remote teaching. I had only two weeks of teaching left before classes concluded and I was able to deliver these sessions via Powerpoint presentations, notes and by setting up discussion threads on the University’s intranet. Tutorials were conducted via email, Zoom, MS Teams or phone calls, depending on the student’s own preference.  All of these have worked well as temporary measures. Creative Writing students don’t sit exams, and they have been submitting assignments online for the past two years. My time at the moment is mainly taken up with marking, which I can do at home.  However, when the new academic year starts in September much greater adjustment will be needed. The extent of this will depend on the levels of social distancing restrictions in place by then.  We may have to accommodate blended or online delivery for a longer period of time.

Which challenges have affected you most?  How have you dealt with them?  What are you most proud of having achieved during the emergency?  What would you say are the greatest challenges that your students are facing? How do they communicate with you?  We’d be very grateful if you could add some short anecdotes here!

Possibly the greatest challenge is the level of uncertainty we all have to cope with, especially when I look forward to September. Concluding the current academic year has been relatively straightforward for me personally, and students and staff have been remarkably flexible under the circumstances. Face time and video conferencing have created some welcome camaraderie as pets and family members make unscheduled appearances! However, the past few weeks have unquestionably been stressful for many of the students. One can only imagine their anxiety about current and future jobs, assignments, and access to resources and technology, and we’ll be doing all we can to support them through these uncertain times. Communication between lecturers and students is less of an issue than peer-to-peer learning and contact, which is very important because of the way our courses are structured, but also for socialising and networking; and this will continue to be a significant challenge until social distancing measures are eased.

Have you had access to the library? Are there ways in which the library can provide more help at the present time?  Have they already helped – for example, by providing access to more online content, offering scanning services, etc.? 

My understanding is that the university is indeed providing access to more online content etc.

Please give any further information you would like to add.  What do you think will happen when people gradually go back to university?  Will some things have changed permanently?  Can some good have come out of the crisis and its impact on the ways in which people work – e.g., by using distance learning more innovatively, being more creative with the development of teaching and learning materials?  What are the mid- to long-term impacts on teaching likely to be?

I think it is inevitable that online learning will increase. Necessity will drive innovation across all subjects and perhaps this in turn will extend to innovation in the way we offer traditional face-to-face learning and teaching, as the ‘blended’ classroom becomes more familiar to us all.

Tell us a little about yourself

I came to academia quite late, after an early career in publishing, having brought up four children. In 2000 I studied for an MA in Writing for Children at the University of Winchester, and when my first children’s books were published in 2005 I was invited back to teach. I was Director of the Winchester Writers’ Festival for six years, and now divide my time between lecturing and writing. My novel for adults, Snegurochka, was published by Salt in 2019.

[Written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

Academic Publishing, Digital Publishing, Open Access, Trends in Publishing

From Open Access to Open Research: a summary of developments

As the OA movement picked up momentum, there were some watershed moments in the UK: the publication of the Finch Report (2012), which – to the surprise of many – chose the Gold “author pays” model (in which the author or his or her institution pays an APC, or Article Processing Charge) over the Green free-to-view-after-an-embargo-period model; the ruling by the major funding bodies, including RCUK and Wellcome, that outputs of the research they fund (journal articles and underpinning data) must be published OA and the content made available for re-use; and the requirement of REF 21 that authors’ final peer-reviewed and accepted article manuscript submissions must be placed in an Open Access repository.  The last of these supports the Green OA model, but without the embargo element. 

Developments in Europe were soon to surpass the UK in ambition. The principal research funder in the Netherlands, the VSNU, began to mandate a transition to full OA via “transformative agreements” with major publishers in 2016. In 2017, the Swedish government issued its Government Appropriation Directive to the National Library of Sweden (leading member of the BIBSAM consortium that co-ordinates library spending across the country) that “all scientific publications resulting from research financed with public funds shall be published immediately open access”, with a deadline of 2026 for “transitions” with all publishers to be fully realised; also in 2017, Projekt DEAL, a German consortium of libraries and research institutes, set a target of revising licence agreements with major publishers to “bring about significant changes in content access and pricing” of e-journals.  Denmark, meanwhile, remains committed to Green Open Access, as do some countries around the world, including the United States until recently (though without consistent policy or a mandate).

Despite all this activity, some major research funders across Europe and the UK believed that progress towards attaining full and complete Open Access to their funded outputs was moving too slowly. Concerns over “double-dipping” and the lack of take-up of initiatives such as membership schemes and the “block grants” from UK HEIs, compounded a view that publishers were profiteering from taxpayer-funded research that ought to be open for all. There is much general recognition that publishers do add value, but the margins and perceived behaviours of some have become polarising elements in negotiations with their stakeholders. The hard reality of adverse macroeconomic factors for higher education has fused with the ideal of democratisation of knowledge (propounded by groups like Unpaywall) to challenge the industry to change – although without concomitant change to the academic incentives that drive ever-increasing research publishing in the first place.

In 2018, the EU Commission created cOAlition S and launched Plan S, which set out ten main principles intended to achieve full and immediate Open Access by 2021: “…all scholarly publications on the results from research funded by public or private grants provided by national, regional and international research councils and funding bodies, must be published in Open Access Journals, on Open Access Platforms, or made immediately available through Open Access Repositories without embargo.” Key tenets of Plan S are that research must be available via free online access immediately upon publication; be free for sharing and re-use under (ideally) the CC-BY copyright licence; and that publication in hybrid journals is not acceptable unless covered by a transformative agreement.

UK Research & Innovation, allied with cOAlition S, is consulting on its own very similar recommendations at present, with a 2022 compliance target. Separately, the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) of the President of the United States appears to be preparing a similar position. Some academic publishers felt that Plan S merely formalised the goal to which they were already working, although bringing forward the deadline; others, including the largest, have resisted the mandate, which has led to disputes and ongoing battles that these publishers probably can’t win.

A benefit of the pressure being applied by funders is that the most enterprising publishers are considering real openness throughout the research cycle – often of more actual value to researchers than the formal published output – and trying to add value in supporting academic dialogue, early findings, failed experiments, supporting datasets and more.

Open Access for books has also been experimented with, at first either by small publishers – often new university presses set up for this specific purpose – or via open funding platforms such as Knowledge Unlatched; later by the larger academic publishers themselves. In the UK, the 2027 REF requirements have mandated Green open deposit of accepted book manuscripts; UKRI considers them “in scope” from 2024; and the National Endowment for the Humanities is approaching both authors and their publishers with offers of grant funding to turn monographs OA retrospectively. Nevertheless, a viable OA business model for books does not yet exist.

The conundrum that academic publishers have had to address is how to fulfil the requirements of the mandates, treat their librarian customers fairly, and develop a sustainable business model to ensure their own survival.  The “transitional model” developed – which has many variants –  is commonly called “Read and Publish”. It involves signing an agreement with an individual library or consortium that monies formerly supplied to the publisher for subscriptions and/or APCs should be combined in a single payment that allows readers access to the publisher’s content and pays for new articles to be published at the same time.  Ideally, no new money will be introduced into the system, though if a per-article APC model predominates, both cost and complexity will inevitably increase. Some publishers allow unlimited new articles to be published within this payment scheme; others put a cap on the number the payment will cover.

The model is simple in principle but needs much work by both publishers and libraries to make it work, and will only be successful if a) it really effects transformation and b) if the author experience is at least as smooth as it was in the old world of subscription funding.  There are plenty of issues besides this to address: transitional agreements are not intended to last forever – basing payment on historic spending will not work in the long term; funding streams across institutions are not centralised; big research libraries may not be able to publish all accepted articles if there is a cap on the “publish” element of the deal – and if this happens, who will decide which articles to publish?; metadata capture and workflows are still painfully inadequate; crucially, many academics are still unaware, or shaky on the detail, of what it means to publish Open Access and need a great deal of support from librarians and publishers in the form of workshops, online tutorials, etc.; and some confuse OA publishing by reputable mainstream publishers with the “cowboy” publications that proliferated after APCs were accepted as a form of payment, and are therefore hostile to the concept.

Above all, the model must be adopted globally in order to succeed. There may be enough money in the system overall, but its distribution will differ radically under R&P, which has implications for the whole ecosystem. China and the USA lead the world in the quantity of their research output.  Neither has a national OA mandate yet – though some American institutions have now signed Read and Publish deals.  The consumer nations, which publish less than they read, should end up paying less – but how will publishers support research outputs from the developing world? In the long term, publishers can’t run with two major business models – i.e., subscriptions + APCs and Read and Publish.  They need the whole world to get behind the Read and Publish model.  Will this happen?

[Written by Linda Bennett]
This article was first published by Bookbrunch on 13th May 2020.