Every student knows the anxiety of spending hundreds of dollars on course books. A 300-page paperback could set you back $50 or more, while a hardcover textbook can cost upwards of $100 on its own. Once every required reading has been rung through at checkout, the cash register can often read over $500 — and that’s only for one semester, and only if you are lucky.
In the fight to make higher education more accessible, the bulk of public action and UTSU lobbying has focused on bringing down tuition fees. While this is a laudable goal, it is in many senses misled. Tuition fees are an abovious target of contention, as paying large somes of money is relatively constant across the board. Books on the other hand can vary widely in cost, not only from faculty to faculty, but also from course to course. When it comes to quickly effecting real change to improve the lives of students, we should really focus on books.
Lowering tuition fees would require the provincial government to step in and provide greater financial support to help students cover the cost of education. Governments are generally averse to spending large sums of money when revenues are low and the economy is sluggish. Since students are not a sizeable and reliable voting bloc, the powers-that-be feel they are not likely see a surge in voter support from taking up student concerns, and governments are unwilling to expend political capital making life easier for them. Student unions are therefore far more likely to be successful lobbying the university and its staff for simple changes that will materially reduce the cost of education.
Some professors have taken to selecting choice chapters from certain books and combining them into inexpensive course packs. This is a move in the right direction, and can help significantly reduce textbook costs for students. However, action should not end there. Professors could reduce costs even further by skipping course readers altogether and only assigning readings available online — reducing costs to zero.
Where free online readings are not available, ebooks should become a greater part of student learning. A basic Kobo or Kindle e-reader costs under $70 — less than the cost of two paperback textbooks. The average price of an ebook for these e-readers is under $15. A full course load of ebooks plus the cost of an ereader — which only needs to be purchased once in a student’s university career — costs a fraction of that of bound readings, not to mention the obvious environmental advantages.
Is this to say that all courses must immediately transfer to paperless readings? No. That would be difficult, if not impossible. Those classes that study older, out-of-copyright material would find it much easier to find free readings online, while certain readings may be impossible to find currently in ebook form. But if a professor assigns five books, and is able to find e-book or PDF copies of two or three of them, then suddenly the price for the student is cut in half. It will require additional effort from the professor, that is certain, but that effort should not be undertaken begrudgingly since it will help to make a university education significantly more affordable and accessible for all students.
David Woolley is a political science and history student at Victoria College.