In this week's news, U Mass Dartmouth is soliciting proposals to privatize their bookstore. Not everyone is happy with the move, however. Some, including the professional staff union president, call this a "secretive" push toward privatization. But the administration sees this as another opportunity to increase services for students while reducing costs.
I won't comment on Dartmouth's move, but I will draw a parallel to a discussion from a CIC TechForum from years ago, probably around 2000 or 2001. In that TechForum, a presenter addressed the issue of "owning" the interface between student and university. Speaking to the then-new trend to "outsource" development of web systems such as registration and admissions, the presenter highlighted his disapproval for outsourcing by asking, "Can you imagine what it would be like if we outsourced our bookstores to Amazon?"
I thought that would be great!
Not all outsourcing is bad. And in the hypothetical case of Amazon, I thought that would be a huge improvement for university bookstores. Remember that circa 2000, most university bookstores were in-person only. If you wanted to buy course materials, you visited in person, picked out your textbooks, notebooks, pens, … whatever. You didn't have the option of buying online. Only a few had experimented with online ordering (although this is common today).
I imagined an online "Amazon-U" bookstore where students could buy their course textbooks online, and have them delivered directly to their dorm room or campus apartment. And next to each textbook, you might have a list of other, related resources. "Students who bought this text book also bought…" might show study guides, Cliffs Notes, or textbooks from related courses. For example, a physics textbook might link to a statistics textbook. Or a novel (such as for a literature class) might link to the movie adaptation on DVD.
Just like Amazon's regular online bookstore, students could rate the textbooks and leave comments. "This textbook was good, but also buy the study guide that goes with it" or similar comments could help other students make the best decisions in buying their course materials.
I still think outsourcing to Amazon or a similar private reseller would have been a good idea. But 2000 was too early for privatization. Higher ed just wasn't ready for outsourcing. As the Dartmouth article mentions, in 2013, campus bookstores are one of the few in public higher education still run by universities. In recent years, higher ed has slowly begun to outsource "commodity" services such as email, areas where a university cannot really add new "value" to the service. How can we improve on the email experience, when Google and other provides already do it so well, and at lower cost?
The bookstore is one area that I believe will see increased privatization over the next decade. I don't believe it will move quickly, however. But eventually, I predict this will become much more common.