Are you Textbroke?

Campaign highlights how much students pay for textbooks

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University of Winnipeg (U of W) students spent anywhere between $100 and $1,900 on textbooks this fall, according to Megan Linton, vice-president external affairs for the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA).

The UWSA helped launch the Textbroke campaign this September to raise awareness of students’ textbook costs. For some students, the cost of textbooks – which increase more than most goods with inflation – are prohibitive and impact their studies, Linton says.

Brianne Selman, the scholarly communications and copyright librarian at the U of W, has been asking students about how much they pay for textbooks. She says that, to avoid fees, some students don’t even bother purchasing the required materials until a class is almost over.

“The strategies were interesting to me. Some students wouldn’t purchase the textbook until later on in the term,” Selman says. “One student proudly told me that they specifically search for the oldest edition of a specific textbook … Another student used a textbook at the library, which she had limited access to … But there are a lot of ways students have tried to cut costs.”

Linton says that some students simply go without.

“We know that once the cost of textbooks reaches a certain height, that students are unable to access it, and so they don't purchase their textbooks, and then their grades decline,” she says.

Selman says the reason textbooks are so expensive is that the textbook publishing industry has a monopoly on course materials. Linton adds that most bookstores (including the U of W bookstore) are owned by the same companies that produce the textbooks.

But some professors understand how pricey textbooks can be and are helping lower the financial burden on students.

Dr. Janice Thiessen, an associate professor in the U of W history department, says she does everything she can to reduce the cost of her course.

“I don’t assign textbooks in my business history class, never. The textbooks are extremely expensive,” Thiessen says. “And I’d have to supplement them with additional monographs, as the texts are deficient when it comes to addressing gender and diversity. Instead, I assign journal readings that are freely available through the UW Library.”

According to Selman and Thiessen, there are plenty of ways that professors can reduce the cost of textbooks, such as placing copies of the required materials on reserve. Teachers need to also consider if they even need the full book. Instead, they could create a smaller course pack.

“There’s a lot of things that profs can do, I think that’s where most of the power is,” Linton says. “Profs can access open textbooks, and so they can give students textbooks that are provided by the government of Manitoba, through open access, and then just give their students those textbooks which are free and really great.”

Selman says that in order for anything to change, students need to make their professors aware of the cheaper alternatives to full textbooks.

“I’m not necessarily saying you have to assign a free textbook if it’s not important. But really start thinking about if the students will need this entire textbook worth three, four hundred dollars. Is there a cheaper alternative? Could you use a course pack?” Selman says.

“Students realize that these materials are important. They simply cannot afford them on top of everything else they’re trying to pay for,” Selman says.

The second phase of the #Textbroke campaign will be launching soon, Linton says, and will focus on helping students provide useful feedback to their profs around textbook pricing.

Published in Volume 72, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 23, 2017)

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