If you see a young person anywhere in the vast expanses of Western Sydney, perhaps on a bus or train, eyes locked on their digital device of choice, chances are they are not engaged in some social media exchange or playing a game.

Instead, she or he could be a Western Sydney University student hard at work studying – reading an e-textbook, making notes, going about the business of learning.

And maybe feeling pleased that they have some extra cash in pocket because instead of having to fork out hundreds of dollars the e-textbook, and others like it, was provided free by the university.

Late last year Western Sydney University announced that starting this semester it would be providing e-textbooks free to 10,000 students across 700 courses, worth around $800 to each student.

The e-texts are being sourced from 100 participating publishers via digital partner Proquest. Some 358 titles will be provided electronically, and 30 titles provided in print where they are not available electronically. For students with a disability the books are accessible to screen readers and other support tools.

WSU’s initiative has no doubt been noted by the National Union of Students, which last year launched a campaign to make textbooks cheaper while also calling for the removal of import restrictions on books.

NUS national welfare officer Robby Magyar told The Melbourne Age that some students dropped subjects or changed their degrees because textbooks were so expensive.

Science, maths and economics textbooks could cost $300 to $800 a semester, law students might spend $165 on a single book, while nursing students spend $2000 on textbooks at the start of semester, he said.

Writing in The Conversation, Roxanne Missingham noted that in the decade to 2013, the prices of textbooks worldwide increased by 82%, roughly triple the price on inflation and so were becoming less accessible to students.

However, textbooks could come down in price following a Government decision to support recommendations by the Productivity Commission that parallel import restrictions on books be removed.

The Government says it will “progress” the recommendation and consult the sector “on transitional arrangements”.

The Australian Publishers Association, however, is not happy with the decision to remove parallel import restrictions. According to Choice magazine, it says the restrictions would deal a “huge blow” to Australian education and lead to fewer Australian books available locally.

But none of this is likely to stem the e-book tide.

A growing number of e-books can be accessed free online: Project Gutenberg, for example, which offers some 53,000 titles; while DOAB invites academic publishers to provide metadata of their Open Access books in a service that can be integrated into university library online catalogues

As Roxanne Missingham explains, this is all part of an international trend for Open Educational Resources – including textbooks and online lectures which are available free online under an open licence and encompasses hundreds of projects including Khan Academy, MIT’s OpenCourseWare program, and Washington State’s community colleges Open Course Library.

The move to OER is particularly vigorous in the US where textbook prices soared 82 per cent between 2002-2012, and the average student budget for books and supplies grew to $1,2027 annually.

Reducing textbook costs was a major focus of President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and resulted in the Affordable College Textbook Act, intended “to expand the use of open textbooks on college campuses, providing affordable alternatives to traditional textbooks and keeping prices lower”.

While e-textbooks have obvious advantages they are not problem-free; however it is unlikely these issues will prevent Australian universities from providing free (or at least cheap) e-texts to some students in future.

For example, the ANU has established a grant scheme to support its academics in publishing freely available digital textbooks with ANU eTEXT, its open access textbook publishing imprint.

ANU academics will be able to access funds to produce their textbooks as freely available e-books and as print-on-demand paperbacks. The money can be used for copyediting, indexing, or buying images and other copyrighted material, for example.

Although e-textbooks are in their infancy it seems certain they have the potential to disrupt traditional publishing business models.

Further reading

Students say textbooks are too expensive – could an open access model be the answer? The Conversation

Why are textbooks so expensive in Australia? The Age

Government response to the Competition Policy Review The Treasury

The Affordable College Textbook Act SPARC

E-textbooks and higher education – some issues Australian Catholic University Library