Textbook Costs and Post-Secondary Education: journalists ask the wrong questions | The Citizens' Press

by Graham H. Cox last modified 2015-08-20T09:50:56-04:00
The school year has begun for most of those going (back) to post-secondary programs and with it comes the barrage of "news" reports on the cost of school supplies. What is really frustrating about these stories is the analysis seems to be that the cost of school supplies and living expenses is too high, but the same journalists writing these stories do not touch on the costs for education as a public service.

Commodities Versus Public Services: Why Reducing Costs of PSE Should Start With Tuition Fees

While textbook costs are well over a $1000 a year for text books (an unscientific average), the cost of books is not exactly something that is interesting to talk about when dealing with access to post-secondary education in Canada.

Why, you ask? Well, because books (and most other school supplies) are commodities and their price is set by the private publishing market. Unless we are going to nationalize part or all of that production system or regulate them for all people, we have no way of really affecting the costs of books, computers or for that matter food and rent.

Unlike an education, books you get to keep on your book shelf and revisit and maybe even sell later (unless they are e-Books -- more on this later). We can have a discussion about why textbooks are so expensive and outline why the private sector publishing industry and the commodification of knowledge laws are costing everyone too much, but do not expect to read this in these news reports.

Education is not (should not be) a commodity. It is a service. It should be a public service and it should be free for the user, paid for through taxes. Easy enough to do (many countries have done it) and is really the only cost of PSE that we can do anything about in the short-term.

Unfortunately, those that own the media would rather talk about things that we cannot do anything about. They would rather talk about how expensive the tablet computers, e-Books, pencils and books are than the cost of education and the high student unemployment rate.

But, Can We Reduce Costs of Learning Supplies?


So, is there anything we can do about the costs of learning supplies apart from nationalize computer production, regulate rent and food costs, and socialize knowledge production?

It is true that these additional costs add to the growing debt that is sinking this generation because tuition fees are too high and students cannot get work. Added to this is the attack on young workers by the Conservative and Liberal governments in Canada as they bring in policy to drive down wages and cut benefits for the younger generation. This does not make it easier to repay that massive and growing education-related debt.

As with anything, we can of-course do something about it. But, only collectively through campaigns and actions coordinated at the national, provincial and local levels.

Open Access for publications should be promoted as an alternative to publishing in closed journals. This would reduce the costs of accessing and reproducing published research in journals.

A real cost reduction would be to bring copyright licensing in-house in universities and colleges and take away power from AccessCopyright. For course-packs, the student/university should only be paying to license things that are not in the public domain and professors should be encouraged to use material that is covered by Open Access licenses.

In addition, the use of older textbooks instead of the newest textbooks is also a cost-saver as students can get the used copies for cheaper. These new textbooks may have updated material in them, but the professor usually knows where the advancements have been and those can be used as a teachable moment in the sciences.

For the arts, much of the readings are still covered by copyright, but promoting Open Access in journal publishing can limit the increase in costs for the university libraries and thus increase the amount of resources for the libraries to offer books to students when they need them for courses.

There are many ways to improve the system of accessing information, but these require an approach where Universities and colleges are treated as public services. It is all connected and it all comes back to tuition fees eventually.

If government treated PSE as a public service then we could work on how to make it more efficient for information generation and distribution. Instead, we treat it as a commodity, and like the textbooks that are produced by for-profit publishing houses, universities jack the prices up while pretending you get something better for the higher price. The reality is something quite different.

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