I was recently asked to speak at the sherif event Open Educational Resources: a viable solution? I took the opportunity to look back at the headline history of OER advocacy and activity internationally with a view to see how these might inform the future of OERs in the UK.

As a long-term open access advocate, I often go back to the Budapest Open Access initiative (BOAI). Published in 2002, the BOAI deliberately limited itself to journal articles. This was not because it was felt that Open Access to other types of scholarly output was unimportant, but that journal articles were considered to be ‘low-hanging fruit’. Journal articles are (almost exclusively) royalty-free and therefore authors are not being asked to forgo direct financial reward if they make their papers open access.

For royalty-producing material – textbooks and some other educational resources – rights holders would need to be convinced that the benefits of open access would outweigh any loss of potential income. Therefore, for the original signatories to the BOAI the focus should be on journal articles, and once we had solved this easier problem, then we could shift to addressing the harder problems. Twenty years on, as we work our way through rights retention, transformative and transitional deals, hybrid journals, green, gold, and diamond we may wonder just how easily picked those low-hanging fruit were.

But it quickly became clear that many people did not want to wait for a simple sequential approach to open access. They wanted to think about a broader range of outputs from the start. So, even from the publication of the BOAI people started to discuss what open access meant for educational resources. The arguments that had been made about the unaffordability of journals were reflected in discussions about the unaffordability of textbooks. And just as concerns were raised about the bundling effects of journals and big deals – why are you paying for one excellent paper (or journal) in amongst many mediocre papers (or journals) – so the question was asked why pay for a whole book when only one chapter had been recommended?

Cape Town Declaration

This desire to see the principles of open access applied to educational resources crystalised in 2007 with the publication of the Cape Town Open Education Declaration. Very much in the style of the BOAI, the Cape Town Declaration described how:

 ‘Educators… are creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge. They are also planting the seeds of a new pedagogy where educators and learners create, shape and evolve knowledge together, deepening their skills and understanding as they go.’

The “emerging open education movement …is built on the belief that everyone should have the freedom to use, customise, improve and redistribute educational resources without constraint”.

The Declaration was broad in its ambition. Not only did it consider a range of materials and formats, including:

‘openly licensed course materials, lesson plans, textbooks, games, software and other materials that support teaching and learning’.

but it outlined a vision for a wider open environment for education, so:

‘open technologies that facilitate collaborative, flexible learning and the open sharing of teaching practices that empower educators to benefit from the best ideas of their colleagues. It may also grow to include new approaches to assessment, accreditation and collaborative learning.’

The Declaration then went on to make a series of recommendations. Firstly, educators and learners should engage with the open education movement by ‘creating, using, adapting and improving open educational resources; embracing educational practices built around collaboration, discovery and the creation of knowledge’. Vitally, it was recommended that ‘Creating and using open resources should be considered integral to education and should be supported and rewarded accordingly.’

Secondly, there was a call for creators and rights holders to release their resources openly, shared ‘through open licences which facilitate use, revision, translation, improvement and sharing by anyone.’

Finally, those in a position to enact policy – from Government through to institutions and departments – should make open education a high priority.  Further, accreditation and adoption processes should give preference to open educational resources.

The declaration closed with a rallying call:

With each person or institution who makes this commitment — and with each effort to further articulate our vision — we move closer to a world of open, flexible and effective education for all.


If we think of the Cape Town Declaration as a grass-roots initiative, OERs received a powerful, more formal endorsement in 2019 when UNESCO issued a set of recommendations on OERs and set up the fabulously-named OER Dynamic Coalition. The Coalition’s purpose is to help member states in:

  • building capacity of stakeholders to create, access, re-use, adapt and redistribute OER;
  • developing supportive policy;
  • encouraging inclusive and equitable quality OER;
  • nurturing the creation of sustainability models for OER, and
  • facilitating international cooperation

As we might expect – UNESCO is careful to tie their comments on OERs into their wider Strategic Development Goals. In particular, OERs are seen by UNESCO as tools that can help achieve those goals around quality education, gender equality, reducing inequalities, and enhancement of science and innovation. As many UK universities have also committed to these goals it is interesting to think about how advocacy for OERs in this country might be aligned with into those institutional aspirations.

We can think of the Cape Town Declaration and the UNESCO recommendations as bookending over a decade’s worth of activity on OERs, moving from the grass-roots to the established. In that time (and since) there have been and range of activities to progress OERs, including in both the US and Europe.


When thinking about OERs in the US it is worth extending our view to look at the wider context. The question of the cost of higher education in the States has become increasingly political over the years. A recent article in the Guardian reported that 45 million Americans owe a collective $1.7 trillion in student debt.  A figure that has more than tripled in the last 16 years. When the tuition for a one-year Library Sciences Masters degree at a US university can be larger than the annual salary for a graduate’s first post-degree library job the burden of debt can be significant.  We now see President Biden talking about some level of debt relief, or forgiveness, for some graduates. The debate is happening – it is a discussion at the highest level

But within this $1.7 trillion problem there is a smaller problem where politicians at the Federal and State level feel that they can make a difference – textbooks. The issue of high-costs textbooks – and their doubling in price since 2000 – has been framed as part of the wider unaffordability of higher education.

There is a range of policy responses. A number of US States have set up studies to look at the issues of OERs, others have task forces or councils to move OERs forward.  At the sherif event we heard from Nicole Allen from SPARC, a body that extensively monitors activity in North America around OERs.

But more importantly than policy, perhaps, is the fact that money is being allocated for OERs. Sometimes at the State level, as an example, between 2015 and 2017 North Dakota allocated $100,000 to the State’s university system for grants ‘to faculty who created, adapted, and adopted OER to save students money on textbooks’. An audit suggested that students had saved 10-20 times the original investment in just two years.

Sometimes it is at the Federal level, with the US Department of Education which has run an Open Textbooks Pilot Program for the past few years, with funds of $7million available in 2021.

One of the most remarkable recent initiatives was launched last summer when it was announced that California was investing $115 million into expanding their Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) degrees pilot for students at the State’s 116 community colleges.  These colleges form the largest higher education system in the US and the aim of the ZTV model is

“…to replace conventional textbooks with open educational resources and other no-cost materials in an entire degree or certificate program, so that students have a path to graduation clear of textbook costs.”

This scheme has two notable features.   The first is that based on an earlier pilot, it is estimated that the scheme could save students up to a billion dollars a year in costs.  The potential return on investment is staggering.

The second is an identification that new technology has embedded publishers in the pedagogical process in a way that wasn’t possible in the world of print.  As described:

“The publishing industry is inventing new ways to extract money from students, from striking deals to automatically bill students for textbook fees to selling access codes that students need to earn a portion of their grade”.

So, not only are the costs increasing, but publishers are ensuring that they are making the purchase of their products mandatory. The move to OERs breaks that dependency.

[As an aside, that creation of a direct relationship between the publisher and the student is particularly concerning for a couple of reasons.  It shifts the publisher from a content provider to a key player in education and allows them to indulge in the types of Surveillance Capitalism so worryingly described by Shoshana Zuboff. Are we content that a publisher knows which student has read which chapters and texts and may have a hand in assessment and grading?

Secondly, it bypasses the library, diminishing our role as providers of texts. Now, we may be content with that, but I think that a shift of that nature needs to be a conscious, mindful decision – not a gradual drift away from one of our traditional roles.]


Just as SPARC has monitored and supported developments in OERs in the US, so its sister organisation SPARC Europe has played a similar role in Europe. SPARC Europe has set up the European Network of Open Education Librarians, with the aim to build capacity around OERs. Representing 27 European countries, there are 110 members, including 12 in the UK and 10 in Ireland.

SPARC Europe also publishes an annual survey on Open Education across Europe and there are a couple of points that I would pick up from the most recent report published in November of last year.

One question the survey asked was whether institutions have created taskforces to support OERs. While some have set them up at the institutional level, respondents reported that it is more likely that any taskforce for OERs within an institution sits within the library. Does this suggest that interest in OERs is more library-driven than academic-driven? This may reflect the early-stage nature of discussions around OERs and the fact that libraries are at the sharp end of textbook pricing issues. And libraries will act as advocates to the rest of the institution – acting as OER Ambassadors. But it is an open question whether the library is the correct node of influence and activity if we are looking for a fundamental shift in behaviour by lecturers and students…

The second point of interest is around funding. The survey asked about the existence of grants to support the creation and adoption of OERs. Only twelve out of 133 respondents said ‘yes’, they knew of grants that were available. Now, this is a survey of libraries and librarians – it may be that there are grants available to lecturers and teachers that the survey is missing. But this response feels very different to the types of funding we have seen are available in the US.


So, where are we with OERs in the UK? The first thing to say is that there has been a lot of work done on OERs over the past ten to fifteen years.

A number of universities put in place institutional OER policies. An example (at random) is that of Leeds University, which was first published in 2012 and updated in 2017. The policy states the university’s position as:

The University encourages staff and students to use, create and publish OERs to enhance the quality of the student experience, provided that resources used are fit-for-purpose and relevant.

The policy sets out the ways in which any OERs created must but ‘fit-for-purpose and relevant’, comply with university guidelines (such as on inclusivity), not contravene anybody else’s intellectual property, and outlines the type of licence that should be used.

Secondly, there was a huge amount of resources provided by Jisc including a very good guide to OERs covering their production, use and reuse, licensing, discoverability. But I note that their big push for OERs was written in 2010, updated in 2014, and archived in 2016. Jisc also developed an App and Resource store, which was a successor to JORUM. But the Store was archived in July 2018.

I think it is fair to say, and I am happy to be corrected, that the community take-up was disappointing and didn’t reflect the amount of thought and effort that had gone into producing the resources made available by Jisc at that time.

Overall, we might take from this that there was a flurry of activity in the 2010s, a lot of work was done to think about OERs and how we in the UK could embrace them and some institutional policies were published –  but that ultimately the spark didn’t take and the fire rather died out. A potentially slightly depressing story.

The Future

But I would like to suggest that there are some reasons why this is now a good time to think again about OERs.

While the issue of university funding is a significant one, I don’t yet see us having the same level of political discourse about tuition fees in the UK as there is in the US. Therefore, I would be surprised if the debate about textbooks is likely to gain the level of political traction it has in the States. As an indicator I had a quick look at the websites for the NUS and Office for Students and there isn’t much there on textbooks at all.

But I do think that the pandemic has made people look again at business and access models for textbooks. For many years we muddled through with models that were unsatisfactory, but not so unsatisfactory that they couldn’t be made to work after a fashion.

The closure of physical libraries during the first lockdown made those deficiencies more real. At a stroke, access to a vast reservoir of print textbooks was removed. Libraries did move very quickly to try to enhance electronic access, but naturally it came at a significant price.

The experiences of the past two years have created an environment where there is a desire not to revert back to the pre-pandemic thinking. There is a willingness and appetite to exploring new solutions.

The other area for hope is infrastructure. Over the past ten years, with an acceleration over the last five, we have seen a renewed interest in university presses and the roles that they can play in supporting open research and education. While the traditional, historic, and revenue-generating presses continue, more and more universities are looking to a new model for the dissemination of knowledge.

What has been dubbed the New University Press movement has taken off in the UK  – from White Rose University Press and we heard from Kate Petherbridge at the meeting), through the highly successful UCL Press (which is expanding to textbooks) to the recently announced Scottish Universities Press – which although focussing initially on monographs is already signalling a potential expansion to textbooks.

These presses provide a potential framework in which the production, discoverability, and preservation of open educational resources might be – for want of a better word – ‘professionalised’ with agreed standards – both of quality and in terms of format, application of persistent identifiers, etc. For me, the new, open university presses provide a natural supporting pillar in any move to expand OERs.

Clearly issues remain. Funding is an obvious one. Discoverability and intra-operability remain challenges. Colleagues at SPARC Europe are working on issues around Persistent Identifiers. And a remaining issue that deserves more than just a passing reference is the issue of (perceived) prestige and shifting academic culture. We have not reached that stage, suggested by the Cape Town Declaration, where “’accreditation and adoption processes should give preference to open educational resources’. Academics such as Matthew Pauley from Middlesex University, who spoke at the sherif event about how he has created OERs for the courses he teaches, are still in the minority.

In my presentation I made a last point about communities that we could engage more with in these discussions – scholarly societies. The open movement has had a sometimes ambiguous relationship with scholarly societies – especially those societies that generate significant revenue through their journal publishing. But could there be a role for societies in endorsing or providing kite-marks for open educational resources? Maybe we will never be able to move entirely away entirely from using publisher name as a proxy for quality, but a stamp of approval from the relevant scholarly society would give teachers and students increased confidence that the open resources they are using are of at least as high a standard as purchased material.

Although we had what might be described as a false start in the UK in the 2010s, my hope is that the environment has shifted to a more positive space. Our thinking about current models for textbooks has come into greater focus, our infrastructure around open university presses has improved, OERs fit into a wider discussion around the role of the university both locally and globally (with many UK universities engaging with the UNESCO sustainability goals).

RLUK has consideration of OERs in its new strategy and we are keen to partner with others to think about how we can move this agenda forward