Textbook prices that break the bank

It has been estimated that by the time a Canadian student graduates from university, he or she will be, on average, about $25,000 in debt...which is enough to put anybody off the idea of going to university.Rising tuition and the need for increased student loans are central to the debt question, but there is another area which cries out for...
Listen3:18
It has been estimated that by the time a Canadian student graduates from university, he or she will be, on average, about $25,000 in debt...which is enough to put anybody off the idea of going to university.

Rising tuition and the need for increased student loans are central to the debt question, but there is another area which cries out for reform: the cost of university textbooks.

Student survey after student survey shows that the cost of textbooks is the single biggest financial headache for students, after tuition.

I should report at the outset that as the parent of two sons in university, I am in something of a conflict of interest.

Over the past 15 years, the cost of university textbooks has increased more than four times the rate of inflation. In the past three decades, the costs have risen some 834%; that is more than double the rate of increase in house prices and triple the cost increases in the Consumer Price Index.

The average student can spend as much as $1,000 per semester on books. A single text can cost $200 or more. In engineering courses, for example, prices can run anywhere from $150 to $300 per book. 

The textbook publishers will argue that especially in Canada, there is a small and specialized market for their product and to some extent they are correct; but that small market is captive to their pricing. Students don't have the option of looking elsewhere for a standard text. They have to take what the instructor commands. So students will seek out second-hand and used textbooks.

To get around that practice, the publishers will bring out a new edition every couple of years. The so-called new edition will then go on mandatory reading lists, when in fact it may not contain anything new at all.

Students in desperate financial straits will turn to the flourishing black market trade in photocopied textbooks. For example, a $200 text can be obtained at a photo-copying shop for less than $100. Publishers complain that the black market in texts costs them $75-million annually. It could be a crime under the Copyright Act, therefore against the law. The shop owner could be fined or even jailed for copyright violations.

There are options for students, but over the course of a year, they are pretty confining. They could choose to virtually live in the school library, poring over the text. Or they could share the cost of a book with two or three friends. Or universities' procurement directors could get together and pressure the publishers for cheaper unit costs by bulk-buying textbooks.

Going to university is hard enough; our young people deserve better.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.