ANU Library Fee Increases to be One of the Highest in the World

Using data provided by Daniel McKay, who surveyed the overdue book policies of the world’s 20 highest QS-ranked universities as well as Australia’s Go8 universities. No data was available for Caltech and ENS Paris, while Johns Hopkins University, the University of Adelaide, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago and the University of Sydney all do not charge late fees. Currency conversions made at market rates on 4 February 2016.

On Tuesday, a statement was published on the ANUSA website announcing that overdue fines on library items would be increased to $30 per item per day, capped at $220 per item. This was supposedly done through a ‘consultative process’ involving ANUSA and PARSA, although the changes appear to have taken the student body entirely by surprise.

A survey of the published overdue book policies of the 20 highest QS ranked universities, as well as all of Australia’s Go8 universities, reveals ANU’s new fines are exorbitant. At $30 per item per day, ANU’s daily late fee is the highest by far. The second-highest, from McGill University, is $5.09 (converted from Canadian dollars). Excluding ANU and the University of Adelaide, which does not charge late fees, the average daily late fee among Go8 Universities is $1.03. Converted to Australian dollars, the average daily late fees among top-twenty QS universities is $2.30. ANU is now a world leader and a spectacular outlier in library fines.

In the statement on the ANUSA website, ANU Library wrote that ‘recent research indicates that library fines are an effective way of ensuring that people will return items on time’. The study cited in the statement’s footnote (Sung and Tolppanen, 2013) considered the effectiveness of library fines in two US universities. In the first, the daily fine rate was USD $0.25, capped at $10 per book, with fines under $2.50 waived. The second had the same rate (equivalent to AUD $0.35 per day), capped at $10, with no fine waiver policy. The methodology was to examine the effect of policy changes that expanded coverage of the fine policy to include student groups (graduate students and staff) that previously received no fines.

To cite a study comparing the effectiveness of a 35-cent per day late fine compared to a baseline of no fines to justify the increase to a $30 per day late fine is nonsensical. It is startlingly bad scholarship. Given ANU’s much-vaunted world-class research reputation, asking students to accept this spurious justification appears to show contempt towards the student body. As the ANU librarians are no doubt aware, scholarship on the effectiveness of library fines overwhelmingly considers the effectiveness of no fines with that of small nominal fines. The current ANU daily late fine rate is $4, which is already well above the rate examined in the study. The only possible conclusion is that far from being ‘very keen to ensure student access to material’, this is actually an unfortunately innovative attempt at revenue raising.

Speaking to Woroni, the ANU Librarian Roxanne Missingham denied this and further cited the problem of ‘a few students’ who keep books for an entire semester, making them unavailable to other students doing the course. Unless ANU students are thought leaders in being jerks, it seems peculiar that this problem has not been found and addressed in the same way in any of the other Go8 universities or in the twenty highest-ranked universities surveyed above.

Missingham states that these problem students end up ‘paying very little’ or having the fee waived. Carefully reading the current policy, it appears there is a loophole where you can return a ‘lost’ (overdue for more than 4 weeks) book and only pay $10, provided a replacement has not yet been purchased. The logical solution is to close this loophole by forcing students to pay the full replacement cost along with late fees when books are 4 weeks overdue. If this is a misreading of the policy, even then the best solution would be to increase the fine cap and deny graduation until outstanding fines are paid, along with a strong educational campaign about these penalties. It’s baffling that this has apparently not been considered. As such, it’s even more baffling that they would ask students to accept what appear to be transparent attempts to hide revenue-raising motivations. Even if students hoarding books for a semester is a widespread problem, it cannot justify the new policy.

The main reason for this is that the fines are not only entirely out of line with international practice, they’re also genuinely burdensome. Students don’t usually borrow a single book at a time – research assignments and essays often entail checking out several books at once, which are then due on the same date. Miss the due date by a single day for five books, and your fine is $150 – a week’s rent in the inner north. $30 is not just the cost of a good paperback, or an excellent meal at A.Baker – it’s almost two hours’ work at the national minimum wage. Even a single day’s fine for a single book would present a significant blow to many students’ weekly budgets. Citing library fines as a source of financial hardship may seem facetious, but that’s only because – as the data above shows – nobody’s even heard of such exorbitant library fines before. If this is somehow a genuine response to students hoarding books, the chilling effect on the entire student body is wildly out of proportion.

One response to this might be, well then – don’t return your books late. Ignoring the fact that library books can be returned late for a variety of reasons – illness, unexpected travel, simple forgetfulness – there’s something greater at stake here. I love the ANU libraries. I’m a fifth-year student and I’ve genuinely never made any public complaints about any ANU services or policies before. In fact, I’m fortunate enough to have staff library borrowing privileges, which makes it unlikely for the new fines to actually affect me. Yet this policy change was genuinely unnerving, and I think the reasons why are important.

This new policy may be a ham-fisted attempt at revenue raising, but the effect of it will be to discourage student engagement with ANU libraries and their wonderful resources. Missingham indirectly acknowledged this when she stated that digital material would be increased to compensate – this would only be necessary or relevant if students were expected to reduce their borrowing. For reasons beyond Missingham and indeed the ANU’s control, university funding is scarce at the moment – but this cannot be the solution.

ANU libraries are places to nap in between classes, low-volume socialising spheres, and computer-hogging battlegrounds. ANU libraries are also repositories of scholarship. As students, we have ready access to large, well-curated collections of world-class research and thinking, not only to bolster a sub-par essay thesis but also as sources of deep learning. Academic texts allow us to directly engage with world-class scholars, in their words, at sustained length. University libraries are central to the idea of a university; libraries are central to the idea of scholarship. The foundation of the ANU Library was considered so important the first ANU Librarian, Arthur McDonald, was appointed before any professors. The threat of exorbitant late fines for revenue-raising purposes goes against this entire history. It builds a small but important wall between the academic heart of the ANU and its students.

There has been a great deal of discussion in recent years about the purpose and role universities are to play in today’s society. As odd as it may seem, the new ANU library overdue fine policy is a new and profoundly disquieting contribution to this debate.