Why are Canadian students still paying through the nose for textbooks?

Open Access is one way we could be lowering the cost of higher education. But we aren’t.

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You don’t hear much about the cost of post-secondary education dropping, but here’s one area where students should be spending less money than ever: texts. I’d say textbooks, but that’s just it–the costly hardcover textbook’s day is all but done. Ditto the cumbersome photocopied course pack. A slew of cheap and free options are available to a professor assembling a syllabus. There’s Open Access, a growing international movement to forego the price-gouging of the academic publishers and publish peer-reviewed scholarly works as freely available material. There’s the ever-expanding public domain. There are millions of high quality essays and articles freely and legitimately posted online. There are affordable subscription-based databases and collections. There’s Google Scholar to sort through it all. And there are fair dealing exceptions to Copyright, which will be extended to educational uses as soon as this summer.

Add it up, and students should be enjoying some much needed relief when it comes to the cost of study materials. But instead, they’ll likely be paying more than ever. The Association of Universities and Colleges Canada, representing dozens of our top schools, have just signed the most expensive copyright licensing deal ever offered to them by the collection group Access Copyright.

My colleague Luke Simcoe wrote about the deal last month, when the University of Toronto and Western took it.  He described Access Copyright as a private entity of questionable value to our post-secondary institutions; a group that ridiculously claims the ability to license the act of hyperlinking, which it bafflingly equates to photocopying, and a group that has chosen to suddenly raise their fees by 800 per cent. Users who appear to be Access Copyright’s board members attacked Luke and his article in the comments section, in several cases without stating their affiliations. Luke’s characterization of the group remains accurate, and I’ll add this to it: although Access Copyright exists to remunerate copyright holders, last year 30 per cent of its income went to “administrative expenses.” They spent $2 million on failed lobbying efforts against fair dealing exceptions for educational materials.

The writing is on the wall, free for all to read: scholarly works are more ubiquitous and inexpensive than ever, hallelujah.  A long-overdue disruption to exploitative practices in academic publishing is well underway. Even Harvard University, one of the best-resourced schools in the world, is pushing back hard against journal publishers’ fees and asking its professors to go the Open Access route from now on. Here in Canada, 34 schools have already opted-out of Access Copyright completely, including the University of British Columbia, Queens, Dalhousie and Concordia. So why is the AUCC doubling-down in the opposite direction and signing the worst deal Access Copyright has ever offered?

Easy–it’s not their money. Buried in the tuition fees of Canadian students next year will be tens of millions of dollars in licensing fees that nobody really had to pay. On a per-student basis, it won’t cost much, but overall, it will constitute a massive transfer of wealth from a nation’s debt-ridden youth to a private industry and the collective that represents it.

Jesse Brown is the host of TVO.org’s Search Engine podcast. He is on Twitter @jessebrown




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Why are Canadian students still paying through the nose for textbooks?

  1. Well, that was nice of them! For a country that wants to get out of its financial crisis, it is doing an excellent job of teaching its students how to go into debt and potentially stay there for a long time.

  2. There is a big difference between articles & full blown texts. I am not aware of many (any) high quality texts in Science or Eng.

    • Quick Google searches found me:

      http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/electrical-engineering-and-computer-science/
      http://www.doaj.org/doaj?func=subject&cpid=99

      This is existing material, but that isn’t really the point. The material for textbooks are primarily authored by staff at educational institutions who then “sell” their work to publishers who do massive markup and resell back to the same institutions. Same with excessively expensive academic journals.

      I put “sell” in quotes as some institutions retain copyright of employees, meaning the educators didn’t even have the legal right to sell this material to the publishers in the first place. There are many legal issues with the way things currently work that have yet to be dealt with.

      An Open Access mandate is a change in business model where the institutions pay the authors and editors directly the one-time costs of production of material that is then available royalty-free. It is all about paying for the fixed costs of the production of knowledge which has a zero marginal cost.

      Rather than dumping money into paying legacy publishers using outdated business models, we put the money into building upon existing material to create higher quality than already exists (and far better than the legacy publishing model can produce).

  3. It seems to me that this would be a good case for a class action lawsuit.

  4. Usta drive me crazy back in the day … required to buy the latest edition of
    a text every year when the only difference was a change to a caption on
    an illustration on pg. 243. Never did it and survived quite nicely, thanks.
    Always wondered how often the publisher’s sales staff and the profs played
    golf together.

  5. same reason were paying higher price for gas its called ripped off and no one does anything about it cnd govt seems to love the prices we pay

  6. that’s easy,
    … its for the same reasons that “Canadian students are still paying through the nose for” highly overpaid Teachers/Educators salaries’, phoney Administrative/Admission fees, exhorbetant Tuitions, and all the illegal “interest” charged on those tuitions for the NO jobs that they can’t pay the tuition’s back with, after.
    anything else i missed ?
    …deeeep breath…

  7. ,,,I don’t know why anyone would even bother buying a book today -just GOOGLE it ppl. -comon’ !
    :)

  8. This has been frustrating to watch. The AUCC and CMEC have been lazy when it comes to these cost issues. They lobby the government had for unwarranted educational institution exceptions to copyright, and then partner up with legacy textbook publishers (who control Access Copyright) to disadvantage alternatives such as Open Access.

    University students, faculty and institutions pay more because the educational administrations and ministers appear to want it to be that way. Rather than embracing the alternatives, they embrace the problem.

    Watching the educational part of the C-11 consultation and committee was annoying because of this. Access Copyright (educational publishers) and AUCC/CMEC claiming to argue with each other even though they act as partners against the competition and the interests of students. Each wanting exceptions to copyright, only arguing over price and not over the idea that the educational sector should be an exception to copyright.

    Note: Access Copyright represents authors in the same way that the board of Scotiabank represents me as a customer. Access Copyright offers a limited set of financial services, nothing more. They are being totally dishonest when they claim to represent the political and/or financial interests of their author clients, especially those who are members (because they are forced to in order to be paid in some scenarios) but who favour competitors and competing business models.

  9. Bookboon.com has free textbooks available for download. They have a wide range of books available and are always adding more. You can get anything from Engineering to Business easily.

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