Rising costs of textbooks among barriers to higher education

The university must create an infrastructure in which materials are financially accessible to students

Rising costs of textbooks among barriers to higher education

Last week, The Varsity published a news article detailing the extent to which rising textbook costs are affecting students at U of T. The soaring cost of materials at the U of T Bookstore is, in part, emblematic of a larger structural problem currently facing Canadian universities and their students, which raises several important questions about financial accessibility to higher education.

The average debt for a Canadian student with some form of debt amounts to $25,000 upon graduation — a number that reflects the overwhelming cost of post-secondary education in this country. With little savings to be gained from the U of T Bookstore’s rental program and low buy-back rates, students are left with few options for reasonably priced materials through the university, leading many to turn to buying and selling used materials online. While the issues of public funding models and enrolment complicate any grievance over the cost of higher education in Canada, the time has come to address exorbitant and exclusionary financial barriers to the university experience. Granted, if U of T is going to continue to thrive as an educational institution, it will be forced to supplement provincial funding through more capitalistic practices, such as the sales of textbooks and materials. However, it is of the utmost importance that students not bear the brunt of the university’s financial growth to the point that necessary educational costs prove insurmountable.

The reasons for the astronomically high costs of textbooks are understandable. The industry revolves around an exhaustive scholarly review process of new materials that entails compensating co-authors, research staff, editors, etc. This, combined with the high print quality of glossy colour texts and the seemingly endless turnover of new editions, is among the reasons textbooks are prohibitively expensive products — not to mention the fact that textbooks are perennially essential resources with an inelastic demand.

There are several alternatives to brand new print texts available to students, although each comes with its own set of limitations. Online texts are sometimes available and are generally less expensive than their print counterparts. However, unlike their hardcopy counterparts, online versions of textbooks are often only accessible for a set period of time — generally a semester or academic year — meaning that students lose the opportunity to refer back to or resell their textbooks. Online texts also remain quite expensive, largely due to the review process they are still subject to and the labour required to develop an online platform and accompanying digital resources.

Open access material is also worthy of consideration and is a subject that has come under recent debate. In 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada overhauled the Copyright Act, effectively loosening the restrictions of copyright law. The legislative changes included an expansion of the fair dealing principle within the context of education. The university interpreted this ruling to mean that so long as instructors use 10 per cent or less of a given academic work, it constitutes fair dealing, and therefore does not require copyright licensing. Open access material is included in the definition of these 10 per cent or less instances, as well as scholarly articles available through the U of T library system, and online sources such as Google Scholar. While these open access materials are useful to students for things like essay writing, they are decidedly less useful in terms of course syllabi. Professors do not always consider price in addition to quality when selecting their texts and, as such, some often choose rigorously reviewed, but painfully expensive textbooks over more financially accessible alternatives.

Additionally, the rental costs of books through the U of T bookstore can be only marginally cheaper than buying a book at its full price. Buy-back rates are subject to fluctuation, with students sometimes being offered significantly less than the total value of the material when they come to sell them back to the bookstore.

With the increasing cost of education in Ontario, one step U of T’s administration ought to consider with a view to limiting the financial blow to students is the implementation of reasonable buy-back rates and a worthwhile textbook rental system. Such a move would be in the university’s best interest as more students would be willing to participate in the program, and more used materials would be available for sale. Course instructors also have a role to play — while some do their best to keep course material costs low, many insist on assigning new editions of textbooks or course packs in lieu of shorter readings that would fall under the 10 per cent line and could be posted on Blackboard at no additional cost to students.

With these barriers in mind, the university has a responsibility to create an infrastructure in which materials are as financially accessible as possible. Currently, the systems in place are woefully inadequate, especially for an institution that prides itself on a reputation for progress.

Editor’s note: A previously posted version of this editorial was outdated.

The Varsity‘s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about The Varsity’s editorial policy, email comment@thevarsity.ca. 


What's the quirkiest course you have ever taken to fulfill a breadth requirement?


Most undergraduate students at the University of Toronto are required to take breadth requirements to complete their degree. To satisfy these requirements, students often need to take a course or two outside of their comfort zone. This week, we asked returning students on campus to share what courses they have taken that were most outside their area of study, and to rate the difficulty of the course on a scale of one to five birds (one being the hardest and five being the easiest). Here is what they had to say.

All photos by Rusaba Alam.


Melika G.

Second year, equity studies/South Asian studies/diaspora and transnational studies

ANT100Y1 [Introduction to Anthropology], 4.5 Birds.


Junku K.

Fourth year, Rotman Commerce

An FAH [History of Art] course, 3 Birds.


Yasmin S.

Fourth year, political science/criminology

PHL235H1 [Philosophy of Religion], 4.5 Birds.


Caleb N.

Second year, philosophy/political science

BIG101Y1 [Big Ideas], 2 Birds.


Abby O.

Fourth year, English literature

SOC250Y1 [Sociology of Religion], 3 Birds.


Fatimah M.

Third year, political science

CIN105Y1 [Introduction to Film Study], 1 Bird.


Donghee V.

Fourth year, biochemistry

PHL245H1 [Modern Symbolic Logic], 3 Birds.



Henry S.

Second year, social sciences

LTE199Y1 [Plants as We See Them, and Time], 3 Birds.




Student charged following stabbing of U of T professor

Alleged attacker in custody, set to appear in court again on October 8

An individual has been arrested and charged following a knife attack on U of T senior lecturer Sean Uppal last Wednesday. Xiaoyue Zhou, 21, a second-year mathematics and economics student, was charged with aggravated assault, assault with a dangerous weapon, and criminal harassment related to the incident.

Mark Kazakevich, a fourth-year computer science and physics student who took MAT223 with Uppal, praised the lecturer for his outstanding teaching skills and genuine care for students. 

“He really wants to make his students understand not only how to do the math, but why it is a powerful tool for many other fields of study,” Kazakevich said, adding: “I would often talk to him one on one after class and ask questions about the material, as well as how it relates to other courses I was taking in physics and computer science.  He was always ready to stay however long it took to fully explain everything I wanted to know, and our conversations were part of what drove me to take higher level math courses in later years.”

The knife attack — which was allegedly unprovoked — took place in Uppal’s office at the Earth Sciences Centre building. Uppal sustained cuts to his wrists, thighs, and face. His injuries are said to be non-life threatening, but he is recovering in hospital.

Althea Blackburn-Evans, U of T director of media relations, declined to comment on specific elements of the case, saying the university “cannot comment on any campus police reports or investigations.”

Zhou appeared in court on Thursday, where a judge ordered police to keep her in custody pending a mental health evaluation. 

Zhou’s two roommates had previously discussed their concerns regarding Zhou’s stress level, noting that she appeared to be under pressure and spent her spare time exclusively reading books and studying. Zhou had not mentioned a problem with any instructor and her roommates became worried when she failed to return home on Wednesday. One of Zhou’s roommates called her and texted her, but received no response. 

Media reports indicate that in the days leading up to the attack, Uppal received frequent, disturbing emails from an anonymous source. He then advised university administration and campus police of the emails.

“The details of this unfortunate event are currently under investigation by the Toronto Police Services. The university is cooperating fully with that investigation. The safety and security of all members of the university community is our top priority,” said U of T president Meric Gertler in a statement. 

 The statement also included contact information for various campus support services, including Counselling and Psychological Services, and Health Services at the Mississauga and Scarborough campuses.

Zhou is scheduled to appear in court again on October 8.

Union, university agree to new contract

Contract includes salary increases, other benefits

The University of Toronto has avoided labour strife to start the school year, after university administration and the United Steelworkers Local 1998 (USW), which represents nearly 7,000 permanent and casual workers at U of T, reached a new deal last week. USW membership voted to ratify the agreement on September 12, with the final count showing 73.9 per cent of members in favour. The contract applies to 4,100 employees.

Among the most significant stipulations in the new contract was a series of salary increases each year, through a combination of percentage increases and one-time cash payments. USW economist Erin Weir initially said the university was pushing for a wage freeze.  

The salary increases amount to 0.5 per cent every six months for the first two years, rising to 1.25 per cent in the final year. The cash payments total $500 over the span of the contract. The deal also includes other benefits and education assistance.


Concessions from the USW include a decrease in the number of personal leave days from four to three, a reduction in the vacation payout that employees receive upon retirement or departure, and an increase in the amount of money employees contribute to the pension plan.

“We moved the University from austerity to increases, and from concessions to better benefits. Some may say this is not a ‘good’ deal, but I say this may be the ‘best’ deal possible,” said USW president Paul Tsang in a message to USW members preceding the vote.

Not all were in favour of the agreement. Linda*, an administrative worker at the Rotman School of Business, said this was her third time going through the collective bargaining process at the university.

“I don’t think this is a fair deal, especially in terms of the pension,” said Linda. “We didn’t lose the pension — the university kind of lost it for us, so having to pay it back, I don’t think is fair,” she added.

Linda said the loss of a personal day was a sore point, adding that while not every industry gets personal days, it is fair compensation for the work done by the USW members. 

“In corporate, they get bonuses if they do well and meet their targets; we don’t, even though we are meeting, even exceeding targets…Most of the departments, because of all the cutbacks they’ve done, are seriously overworked and undermanned,” said Linda.

Mary*, however, who has worked at U of T for 34 years and is currently employed in a registrar’s office, echoed the majority of voters with her positive comments. “I think it’s a fair deal,” she said, adding that, given the economic climate, she was not expecting a raise.

Mary added that the concessions made by the union were “more than fair,” in light of the raises, and that they were ultimately manageable. “Losing a personal day, having to sacrifice vacation days if you don’t take them when you’re supposed to, the possibility of having to make higher contributions to our pension plan— it’s my pension plan and I’m happy to contribute, I don’t think that’s such a hardship… I am very happy to vote yes.”

The new contract will last until June 30, 2017. 

*Name changed at request.

UTM students march in solidarity with black youth affected by police brutality

March was part of the Hands Up Walk Out initiative

Last Wednesday, over 50 UTM students walked out of class, and attended a march in solidarity with Mike Brown and black youth affected by police brutality.

The march began in front of the William G. Davis building, and then winded throughout the campus, with attendees chanting “no justice, no peace” and “hands up, don’t shoot.” 

The march was organized by University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) vice-president, equity Melissa Theodore in the wake of the shooting of Michael  Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black man, by white police officer Darren Wilson. A preliminary private autopsy found that Brown was shot at least six times in the chest and head.

A number of community activists spoke at the event, including Rose Streete, a recipient of the 2013 YMCA Peace Medallion and candidate for Mississauga City Councilor in Ward 8. Streete urged students to fight injustice in their community, and called for an end to institutionalized violence on people of colour.

According to the event’s Facebook page, the march was part of the Hands Up Student Walk Out initiative, which calls for a number of fundamental changes in light of the Brown shooting and subsequent protests, including “a swift and impartial investigation by the Department of Justice into the Mike Brown shooting, and expanded Department of Justice investigation into patterns of civil rights violations across North St. Louis County.”

The consent conversation

From ‘no means no’ to ‘yes means yes,’ the language of consent on North American university campuses may be changing

The consent conversation

Weeks into the start of the new school year, colleges and universities are already under intense pressure from government officials and members of the public to change protocols for handling incidences of on-campus sexual assault in the wake of a number of incidents at Canadian institutions.

Last week, the University of Ottawa suspended its men’s hockey team after two players were charged with sexually assaulting a young woman in Thunder Bay. The assault took place in February, when the team was in town to compete against Lakehead University.

The victim, a 21-year-old woman, did not report the incident until the attackers were back at their home campus three weeks later. 

It is not only administrative complications that hinder student assault victims in Canada; many sexual assault cases go unreported due to the social stigma and misunderstanding surrounding the issue of rape, resulting in the inability of many college students to fully understand the consequences of certain behaviors they engage in.

During this year’s orientation week at Carleton University, a number of students were photographed wearing t-shirts that said “Fuck Safe Space.” The students involved said that the original purpose of the shirts was to rebel against the pampering of first-year students. However, the message was interpreted by some as promoting rape culture and condemning the notion of the university providing a safe space for its students. 

Legislative developments

In recent weeks, American governments have moved to reduce the prevalence of campus sexual assaults and change language around sexual consent.

On September 4, the California legislature passed a law that requires state colleges and universities to change or intensify their investigations of assault claims as a way of attempting to decrease the number of campus assaults. Bill SB967, or the Yes Means Yes bill, was also enacted with the intention of clarifying what constitutes sexual consent. 

Under the bill, consent is defined as “an affirmative, unambiguous and conscious decision” from each participant wanting to engage in sexual activity, at every stage of that sexual activity. The bill is also part of a broader movement from traditional “no means no” consent language to “yes means yes.” 

“Consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual encounter and can be revoked at any time,” the bill adds. 

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) developed the No Means No campaign nearly 20 years ago to reduce the occurrence of sexual assault on college and university campuses.

California public and private secondary schools are also required to adopt a “victim-centered” approach to handling and enforcing policies set in place to not only prevent assaults, but to support victims by providing them with clear options for getting any help they may need.

California’s change in protocols is partly a response to a federal bill passed earlier in July. The new law was set in place to help manage the high number of assaults taking place on college campuses throughout the United Sates. It mandates that schools must conduct anonymous surveys in order to assess and make public the extent of sexual assaults taking place within their student populations. 

The law also requires colleges to provide victims with any assistance they may need to help find closure, whether it is with reporting the assault and assuring proper actions are taking place to convict the attacker, or finding emotional support. If the college or university fails to comply with the new standards, one per cent of its operating budget will be cut as a consequence.

Legislative developments in the US were largely the result of a survey conducted by White House focus groups that found that one in five female college students had been assaulted at some point during their academic careers. Public protest from local communities, campus organizations, and assault victims also spurred the changes.

In Canada, the occurrence of on-campus sexual assault is even more frequent. According to surveys conducted by York University, four out of five female undergraduates disclosed that they had been assaulted, with only 29 per cent of them reporting the incident and only six per cent notifying the police.

“Proactive approach”

At U of T, the degree to which sexual assault is a problem on campus is still largely unknown — at least to the public. However, the university is taking steps towards promoting policy changes and making more information available for students.

For example, Ask First, a campaign established in 2007, provides resources and materials to increase awareness of sexual assault and inform students on consent.  

U of T also provides an on-campus Assault Centre, Sexual Education Centre (SEC), and psychological services for victims of rape and sexual assault.

Najiba Ali Sardar, vice-president, equity, of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) called on students to engage in open dialogue about the meaning of consent. 

“It is our job to encourage these discussions amongst students. We try to take a proactive approach by holding various equity workshops in our clubs training, workshops, and events we are invited to in order to remind our members what consent looks like,” said Sardar.

However, Rachel Costin, SEC’s public relations representative, said the university’s legislative policies around sexual assault were still in need of improvement. “There is no clear strategy for handling assault cases,” she said. 

“Victims are often confused and do not know who to go to report their assault. They do not know if they should report to university officials or go seek help outside campus,” Costin added.

Althea Blackburn-Evans, U of T director of media relations, said the university offers a number of on-campus resources aimed at informing students on issues around consent, including the Draw The Line program, which educates students on how to spot sexual violence and empowers them to make a difference.

In an attempt to elicit change in the university’s policies, the UTSU said it is working to establish additional workshops and information sessions, particularly for first-year students.

“If all first-year students were required to attend a mandatory workshop discussing safety on campus, respect, consent, rape culture, and so forth during Orientation Week, we would hopefully see increasing change. We must take an intersectional approach to these issues, being aware of things like intimate partner violence, the problematic sexualizations of racialized women, indigenous women, [and] transwomen,” Sardar said, adding: “These measures would be a positive step forward.”

Costin echoed Sardar. “It is about information and communication,” Costin said.  

“Students need to understand what constitutes as consent and what constitutes as assault. Universities need to support…victims by providing them with clear administrative assistance and multiple avenues of emotional support so that they can plan their own way of finding closure,” she said.

McGill student wins landmark case against CFS

Case could have wide-ranging consequences for CFS battles in Ontario

McGill student wins landmark case against CFS

A McGill student has won a landmark case against the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). Although Ge Sa, a PhD student and plaintiff in the case, launched the suit as an independent individual, his victory will allow the McGill Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) to hold a referendum on whether or not to remain a member of the CFS. The landmark case, launched earlier in the spring, began when Sa sent a petition for a referendum to the CFS in two packages, one of which was allegedly lost in transit.

The case could have wide-ranging consequences for CFS battles in other jurisdictions, including Ontario, where student societies such as the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) at the University of Toronto have attempted to hold referenda on their CFS membership. Various U of T divisions, including the Engineering Society, the Trinity College Meeting, and Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC), passed referenda in favour of fee diversion from the University of Toronto Students’ Union in March 2013.

A PGSS referendum held in April 2010 resulted in 86 per cent of the electorate voting in favour of defederation, a majority large enough to leave. The PGSS does not consider itself a member of the CFS any longer and as such, has not paid its membership fees since 2010. The results of the 2010 referendum have yet to be recognized by the CFS, which maintains that the PGSS is still a member society. In response to the CFS’ refusal to acknowledge the 2010 referendum results, the PGSS filed a case requesting permission to schedule a referendum on their membership. 

The trial for Sa’s case took place at the end of August, ending with the judge ruling in favour of Sa on September 9, 2014. The date of the PGSS referendum will be scheduled following a meeting of the national CFS executive. Sa has requested that the vote take place sometime in late October, although the date has yet to be confirmed. 

Membership Dispute

It is the official stance of the PGSS that it is no longer part of the CFS. “Whether the last referendum is valid or not, it’s a case in court right now,” said Sa, acknowledging that the membership status of the PGSS is up to the court to decide.

“They keep claiming that the PGSS is part of the CFS on their website, in their materials, and in their publications. I personally think it’s just not [right]. I do not want to be associated with them, and I don’t want them to keep claiming fees from us,” he added.

“This is such a unique case because the PGSS actually put the brakes on us a number of years ago,” said Brent Farrington, CFS internal coordinator. “Their case was that they weren’t members of our organization; our case was that they are members of our organization.” He added, “[T]he students at McGill are in fact members and have the right to exercise that vote.” 

However, when Sa filed his original petition requesting a referendum on the McGill campus, the CFS said they would not work to recognize the petition, on the grounds that the PGSS does not consider itself a member of the CFS. “We made him aware that, as per the bylaws, their member local association would not be cooperating with us to validate the petition because they did not believe they were members of our organization,” Farrington said.

“They’re switching back and forth on their position,” Sa said. “You can’t claim that we’re members in a previous case and then claim that we’re not members in this case,” he added.  

Previous referenda attempts

According to Farrington, for a number of years the CFS has tried to set up a vote on membership at the McGill campus. “The student association shut down the process,” Farrington said of the 2010 referendum. However, the PGSS used an online voting system for the referendum, which is not permitted under CFS bylaws. “That was a violation of the bylaws — we flagged that for them and they decided to proceed anyway,”  Farrington added. 

“The CFS has been backwards. We’re in 2014 now and they still want to use paper ballots,” said Sa. 

“The PGSS is not involved with the CFS at all and I find it funny that the CFS uses bylaws that they amend themselves to retroactively bind the PGSS,” Sa added. 

Farrington claims that no one has filed a motion to amend the CFS bylaws to allow online voting; however, it is a topic that the CFS has discussed.

Additionally, there were issues with the receipt of the petition that Sa sent to the CFS wherein he requested that a referendum be scheduled. Sa’s petition was sent in two envelopes, one of which the CFS claims it never received. “[T]hat’s a lot of half-truths,” Farrington said in response to the allegation that the petition was misplaced.

Sa said that he sent the petition in two separate parts in order to comply with Canada Post regulations. “It was sent in two envelopes because Canada Post doesn’t allow super heavy packages,” he said.

Sa believes that the CFS did receive both the envelopes, and said that he has tracking information to support his claim. Farrington, on the other hand, claims that both envelopes were sent by registered post to the CFS office in Ottawa, but when they received notice to collect them, there was only one envelope waiting. “It was a clerical error — we contacted Ge Sa to advise him that his petition didn’t add up to nearly enough and asked what was going on, and he then accused us of not picking up his second envelope,” Farrington said.

The CFS eventually recognized the petition on August 26, two days before the start of Sa’s trial. 

Implications for Ontario

Other student societies in Ontario have also attempted to hold referenda on their CFS membership. Among these is the GSU at U of T, which is in the process of litigation with the CFS. In September 2013, the GSU circulated a petition for a referendum which gathered 3,000 signatures. The CFS has not acknowledged the validity of the petition, so the GSU undertook legal action to initiate a referendum.

Walter Callaghan, chair of the litigation committee of the GSU, hopes that the court judgment will be favourable and that the CFS will be required to acknowledge the validity of the petition. If the CFS acknowledges the petition, Callaghan anticipates holding the referendum during this academic year. The GSU has no official position on the petition and encourages discussion of the issue from all of its members.

“The Ge Sa victory means that the CFS cannot arbitrarily interpret its bylaws, and recognizes the rights the bylaws provide to students to decide their own future and the nature of their relationship with CFS,” Callaghan said.

Although the GSU was one of the founding members of the CFS, their internal relationship with them has soured over the years. A statement on the GSU website states that the GSU and the CFS often have different goals and that the petition should open a healthy debate on their 32-year-old CFS membership. Further statements report a lack of need for the CFS as one of the reasons behind the petition. The GSU has sought out alternative, allegedly superior replacements for CFS services, such health and dental plans, a more sustainable handbook, and ethical merchandise. 

“This case sets the precedent that any student within a student group — no matter what their execs may think — if they have the 20 per cent needed to call a referendum, they can have a referendum,” Sa said.

Green Champions unites students, staff, professors across faculties

Sustainability Office program promotes greener daily life, on- and off-campus

Green Champions unites students, staff, professors across faculties

Professor Christian Abizaid’s research focuses on the Amazon rainforest. While he researches the environmental impact of the Amazon’s trees being cut down, his participation in the Sustainability Office’s Green Champions program invokes “a process of self-reflection” as he reevaluates his own environmental impact.

This September, Abizaid pledged to reduce household waste through Green Champions, part of the university’s It’s Greener Here initiative, which is committed to making the university more sustainable. Green Champions also provides those interested in the program with resources on how to be green and tools to feel environmentally empowered.

Similar pledges are listed under one of four categories: waste, health, water, or energy. According to program coordinator Jessica Dawe, these categories encompass how each person impacts Earth, and the breakdown makes pledging less daunting. 

Pledges range from unplugging all electronic devices when not in use to adopting a plant-based diet one to four times weekly. While current pledges are for this month, anyone can get involved with Green Champions throughout the year.

More than 700 students have already pledged at Green Champions’ frosh events or online, while seven pledgers are featured on the Green Champions website. On this blog, featured champions like Abizaid document their pledge progress.

The university’s Sustainability Office, which launched in 2004, developed the Green Champions program last winter, following a general green lifestyle pledge program last fall. One goal of the program is to demonstrate that anyone can be green and environmentally conscious regardless of which subjects they study.

Dawe said the university community has been generally receptive to Green Champions as they “learn about how they can make modifications to their own lifestyle.” According to Dawe, staff members often want to learn more about the program after they see their colleagues participate. 

Dawe hopes the program will show people that environmental action doesn’t have to be scary and that there are environmental leaders across different faculties, offices, and student groups. She expressed hope that the program will inspire conversations with peers, family members, and friends, and eventually snowball to create a larger conversation about climate change.  

Abizaid, too, hopes for long-term impacts of his month-long pledge and committed to continue living sustainably after September. He also got his children involved with the program at home. For instance, he and his children measured how much water is used in a bath versus in a shower. 

“Anything we do on this Earth has an impact,” Abizaid said. 

Green Champions also allows students to see Abizaid and other faculty members as people who are making an effort to be greener in daily life and not just as professors.  

“If at least one person goes to the website and can relate somehow and decides to make even a small change in their lifestyle, then it’s good,” Abizaid said.