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Textbook costs need more than a textbook solution

Editorial/Opinion by

Post-secondary textbooks are expensive. Any McGill student can attest to this: For many, spending hundreds of dollars at the bookstore is an unfortunate reality of every semester. Others turn to scouring the internet for alternatives and older editions of required texts, or pawning off last year’s gargantuan, intro-level books on the McGill Textbook Exchange Facebook group. Some students simply forgo a required text altogether.

As with any hurdle that comes with being a McGill student, students across faculties and demographics have innovated their way around outrageously-priced books, which range from $50 to $450 for books for a single course. Yet, the fact remains that the price of textbooks is an enduring financial barrier preventing students from making the most of their degrees. At best, the steep price of textbooks discourages students from the extra reading and work that contribute to and sometimes, are necessary for success in a class. At worst, it is a serious barrier that may prevent students from taking a given course or pursuing a degree at all.

This is not a new problem on campuses, but with the rising costs of overall tuition at Canadian universities, it has only become more urgent. As a result, Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice-President (VP) University Affairs Isabelle Oke is raising awareness about Open Educational Resources (OERs)—free, online educational resources developed by professors and faculty internationally—and encouraging McGill to contribute to these resources and consider them as a cheaper alternative to print textbooks. Professors, faculty departments, and administrators should follow students’ lead. It is time to innovate solutions to the problem of textbook costs, in order to relieve some of the burden from students.

Part of the problem lies beyond the University; textbooks are expensive because the very small number of academic publishers that dominate the market can make them expensive and incorporate cost-raising extra features to edge out their few competitors. Still, this should not preclude McGill from making changes that are within its scope to alleviate some of the financial burden for students. McGill does have some resources in place to address the problem already, such as alternatives to buying new textbooks: Students can take some course books out from the library, and the McGill library’s online database provides a range of online material.

However, these solutions are far from surefire. As they do not carry enough copies for an entire class, course reserves rely on the majority of students buying their textbooks. The helpfulness of these alternatives also varies significantly across courses and departments. A political science undergraduate student may be able to find most of their required readings on WorldCat, but for a physical science major with latest-edition textbooks required each semester, it is a different story. Some professors are aware of this bind for students, and tailor their syllabi accordingly; however, others do not, or cannot, because their courses demand the use of textbook problem sets, for example.

Professors, faculty departments, and administrators should follow students’ lead. It is time to innovate solutions to the problem of textbook costs to relieve some of the burden from students.

McGill can do better for its students at the level of individual instructor and departmental choices as well as in broader administrative reform. Faculties and departments should consider OERs and other options available to improve access to course resources. The McGill administration should also look at facilitating solutions. Even in the absence of decisive reform, simply consulting with faculties, departments, and students about areas of greatest need, and the feasibility and effectiveness of solutions, could go a long way.

Change need not come exclusively from the administration, though. As the key decision-makers on required course materials, individual professors and departments stand to have the most immediate impact on student textbook costs. Professors should certainly assign the reading materials that they see fit for a course. However, they should be flexible about the version of a textbook students can use. Moreover, as part of the selection process of these materials, instructors must keep students’ finances in mind. If a professor chooses to require the latest edition of a very expensive textbook, then that decision should be based not only on the material’s merits, but its merits relative to costs to students. Departmental oversight of textbook choices should enforce this principle across course sections.

The cost of textbooks is a real and enduring burden that acts as a barrier to learning for post-secondary students, at McGill and elsewhere. It is high time that the University take more concerted, consistent steps to alleviate it.

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