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The truth behind textbook price-rises

This fall, textbook inflation in North American universities has skyrocketed, and the University of the Fraser Valley has been no exception.

As reported in the Globe and Mail, textbook inflation has been outpacing overall inflation since the 1990s, but has recently seen a considerably large increase. According to Statistics Canada, textbook and tuition inflation have grown at approximately 10 times the rate of overall inflation in the last year.

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by Alex Watkins (News Writer)

This fall, textbook inflation in North American universities has skyrocketed, and the University of the Fraser Valley has been no exception.

As reported in the Globe and Mail, textbook inflation has been outpacing overall inflation since the 1990s, but has recently seen a considerably large increase. According to Statistics Canada, textbook and tuition inflation have grown at approximately 10 times the rate of overall inflation in the last year.

Last year, the overall rate of inflation was 0.3 per cent, while textbook inflation rose to 3.5 per cent and tuition to four per cent. This year, consumer prices have increased to 1.7 per cent, and textbook prices jumped to 7.1 per cent. Tuition rose to 4.1 per cent.
Cameron Roy, Manager of Ancillary Services at UFV, said that he wasn’t entirely clear on how publishers price their books, but the bookstore’s method of pricing had not changed in decades. He explained, “I’ve been here for 22 years, [and] I’ve priced the books exactly the same way. We have a mandated margin, because we’re a cost recovery department of the university.

“So I have overhead, I have expenses, I have a mortgage, I pay the light and heat…So then the margin has been the same, it’s been 25 per cent since the day I got here till today.” He stated that any increases in price were therefore due to an increased invoice price from the publishers.

Professors sometimes attempt to help students get around the cost of purchasing multiple textbooks by having the bookstore put together course packs, which are printed and bound by an in-house publisher. But according to Roy, this is getting more and more difficult due to increased copyright fees on the material pulled from each source. “Every aspect of our business now is being kind of driven and pushed and essentially threatened by some of these decisions that publishers are making. Course packs…give faculty a flexibility [in] getting to the students exactly what they need [by] pulling different chapters and articles from different sources into one contained, cheaper, bound edition.”

We still have to pay a royalty on those, there’s still a copyright [and] the prices have been increasing …the tariff that is now being applied to photocopying and copyright on campus is beyond dramatic…it threatens faculty’s ability to be able to do it, [because] I just can’t even imagine how students would possibly pay for the new tariff.”

Roy said that the UFV bookstore needs to find a way to lower prices in order to stay competitive, because students can often find their books elsewhere, either online or in the thriving used-book market. He questioned the pricing of textbooks on websites like Amazon, which are often significantly lower than those that he can afford to offer in the bookstore. “Why does it seemingly look like Amazon is selling these books at a cheaper price, and we’re probably…being invoiced differently. I’m hoping that it’s not because we’re a public institution and somehow public institutions are seen to have deep pockets.”

According to The Citizen, a study by the United States Government Accountability Office in 2005 attributed the increase in textbook pricing to the practice of bundling, in which a supplementary text, DVD or web access code is included with the main text. Roy believes that this is also a big problem for students, as the prices for individual items are often dramatically higher than their prices when bundled. Therefore, students who have purchased used textbooks and are required by their professor to use a one-time-use bundled supplement such as a web access code must purchase it separately, sometimes for as much as $40.

According to Roy, “By the time you buy the used book and the code separately, the price of the used book is more than the actual new package.”

While the practice of bundling has yet to be regulated in Canada, US Congress recently passed legislation requiring publishers to sell all bundled items separately from the texts. The legislation came into effect this July.

Professors are responsible for choosing all course materials ordered by the bookstore. Roy denied any possibility that professors could be influenced by publishers to purchase a specific text. He stated: “They get the desk copy to look at, to review. That is absolutely everything they get, I know that for a fact. And I know faculty are… pretty vigilant about that, because… there’s a lot of money involved. I can honestly say that the faculty do not get any…bribes, no kickbacks, no lunches, not that I know of. I mean, we refuse routinely. We’re not being sold.”

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