This year’s Academic Book Trade (ABT) Conference was held in Stratford-upon-Avon on two gloriously sunny days (May 10th and 11th).

The theme of the conference was The TEF, Brexit and More: what’s happened, what’s happening, what to do next. The speakers spoke on all of these topics, but it could equally have been entitled Academia and Academic Publishing and Bookselling: telling the story.

Lynne O’Neill, chair of the ABT, was first to pick up on this theme. She quoted Romeo and Juliet to illustrate the symbiotic, sometimes turbulent relationship enjoyed between booksellers and publishers: “Two households both alike in dignity …” She referred to the huge changes that have taken place in the academic landscape over the past year, especially the setting up of the Office for Students [OfS]. Richard Fisher, the conference chairman, added that HEFCE officially came to an end in April, to be replaced by the OfS and UKRI [UK Research and Innovation].

William Bowes, Director of Policy at the Publishers Association, took as his topic The UK: the World’s Publisher. He began by saying that, although there has never been a better time to be involved in publishing (4 of the world’s 5 biggest companies include some element of publishing in their portfolios), “for an industry whose sole purpose is to tell stories, we’ve not been very good at telling our own”.

Stories help things to make sense: they shape our hopes and dreams; and academic publishers provide information and knowledge to enable people to achieve those dreams. “No fetters should be placed on what authors wish to write or publishers to publish.” Brexit offers publishers the opportunity to start telling their story better: it’s an opportunity they all need to grab.

Dr Clare Goudy, Director of the Education Planning Office of the Vice-Provost at University College London, gave the keynote talk, entitled An Approach to the TEF: Capturing Teaching Excellence in a Multi-Faculty Research-Led University. She said that, perhaps because her own background was in English, her approach to crafting UCL’s TEF submission had been to tell the university’s story of academic achievement.

The question then had been how to provide evidence to underpin this. UCL’s Library Services had played a big part. The Library provided a lot of data to back up its investment in resources; and although it has developed substantial electronic collections, it still gets 3 million visits a year from students and academics. She said that constructing a narrative for subject-level TEF would be more difficult, the many interdisciplinary subjects offered (for example, Classics and Linguistics) do not fit easily into categories. Dr Goudy concluded by saying that “Universities will lobby to retain autonomy over what they have to offer. It will be unfortunate if the TEF is used to drive curriculum priorities”.

Louis Coiffait, Associate Editor of wonkhe – his presentation was entitled The Shipping News – elaborated on a number of interrelated stories, including the mystifying and complicated issue (which he expertly unpicked) of how many individual government and related bodies influence funding and decision-making at universities; and stakeholder pressures with regard to who pays / who should pay, not least from students’ parents. He said that “fake news” was a “perfect storm” waiting to assail universities; but they have always had to manage catastrophes, including wars and famines. “Waves are not boring and create opportunities, too.”

Louis’ final message was “Stay focused on the passengers. There are new types of study and student now. Help them get to the top of the world!” (William Bowes’s point about publishers’ relevance to hopes and dreams came into play again here.)

Helen Adey, Resources Acquisition and Supply Team Leader at NTU, spoke about What Today’s Students Need and How We Should Help Them, agreed in the panel session which followed that students now need all kinds of help besides provision of resources – for example, information about how to give presentations, how to read critically and time management. They want resources presented in such a way that they can understand exactly what is expected of them. From the Library’s perspective, electronic resources can be made more available to more people and are often more affordable: but, given the choice, many students still prefer print.

Kiren Shoman, Editorial Director of Sage Publishing, and Annika Bennett of Gold Leaf presented some of the highlights of How Are Students and Lecturers Using Educational Resources Today?, the first part of a two-part report commissioned from Gold Leaf by Sage. The findings included that 81.6% of participating academics and 62% of participating librarians (across more than 100 UK universities) said the approach to pedagogy had changed at their institutions.

However, their views on which resources were being used were markedly different. For example, while 79.6% of the librarians said that students were encouraged to use aggregated databases, only 21.9% of the academics and 13.3% of the students agreed. Their replies may have been skewed by use of the word “aggregated” in some instances, but overall the report found that the three main constituent user groups of resources in Higher Education – academics, librarians and students – each had a different story to tell. Another important finding was that there are often discrepancies between the resources people actually use and the ones they say they use. The second report will explore this further.

The second day of the conference was devoted largely to two workshops, one featuring a student panel led by myself and the other a scenario-planning session in which Helen Adey took the audience through the challenges and choices librarians face when managing resources budgets.

The conference concluded with Richard Fisher’s swan song – sadly, he has decided to conclude with his third year as conference chair – during which Louis Coiffait questioned him about how he saw the condition of Higher Education and HE Publishing and Bookselling today.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *