There are plenty of textbooks needed for your degree, but who chooses them?
Adrienne Shumlich/the Gauntlet

Textbook prices under examination

New document aims to improve selection of course textbooks

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The cost of post-secondary education in Canada is constantly rising. Along with tuition and other fees, students must buy textbooks, which can cost hundreds of dollars each semester.

Textbook publishing is a big business. What students may not realize is how professors interact with large publishing firms to determine which textbooks to use. Every year, sales representatives of textbook publishers approach many professors at the University of Calgary to help determine the textbooks used in classes.

At the U of C, a document is being drafted by the Students’ Union and the Teaching and Learning Committee to inform faculty about the relevance and price of textbooks and course materials they are assigning. It will have an inclusive list of available textbooks and their prices. The document is expected to be released this April.

Second-year U of C chemistry student Tracy Thorssen said that some of the required textbooks for her classes are unnecessary.

“I think professors should look into it a bit more, because sometimes I don’t always need the textbook, but it’s required for the class and sometimes they seem way too expensive for what you’re getting,” said Thorssen. “It seems to buy new textbooks is a bit outrageous. I spent over $800 last fall, and I probably spent another $300 this winter.”

According to SU vice-president academic Kenya-Jade Pinto, it is part of the SU’s mandate to increase affordability at the U of C. 

In the past, affordability efforts have been concentrated externally through provincial organizations and lobby groups. However, this document will be the U of C’s first on-campus discussion around course document affordability.

“We wanted to provide some feedback for professors and we will be creating a document that will be distributed to faculty on campus,” said Pinto. “If we can provide professors with the knowledge and material before they choose a book or a course pack, then I think we can impact the student experience positively.”

Pinto said professors may not always keep prices in mind when selecting textbooks.

“Profs will, at times, assign textbooks without knowing how much they cost, and textbook reps will approach professors in the same way that drug reps will approach doctors,” said Pinto. “A lot of the time, the discussion of price is not a part of that conversation.”

The U of C bookstore manager Brent Beatty said textbook representatives visit campuses across Canada with one goal in mind: getting instructors to use their books.

“A publisher representative’s job is to provide information to faculty members on what course materials are available in the marketplace,” said Beatty.

Beatty said representatives visit university campuses at different times of the year to speak with faculty.

“There are between 20 and 25 reps wandering the campus throughout the year focusing on the two large semesters,” said Beatty.

Beatty does not know of any university regulations surrounding representatives’ interactions with professors.

“To my knowledge, there is no policy by the university that govern reps on campus,” he said.

U of C political science professor Anthony Sayers believes these representatives play an important role in what textbooks students end up having to purchase for their courses.

“They are critical to laying out in front of the academic some of the options and the ones that bother to knock on the door might well shape that choice and directly affect the choices that students have,” said Sayers.

Sayers said textbook representatives can be helpful in selecting course material.

“There are times when a really good book has been shown to me that I would not have looked at, because it was slightly aside, and I’ve actually modified the course to fit it because I think it’s an impressive book. So in that case there are times when they’ve been really advantageous,” said Sayers.

According to Sayers, keeping book prices low is one of the top priorities for professors when choosing books.

“By and large, we tell the reps that students are price sensitive and we try to keep it within reasonable bounds,” said Sayers.

The average price of textbooks for full-time students is between $1,100–1,700 per year, according to Pinto.

She said increasing the dialogue around textbook pricing and relevance is greatly needed.

A large team including Pinto, faculty members, vice-provost teaching and learning Lynn Taylor and administration has been compiling data and information about textbooks throughout the fall 2012 semester. 

Pinto said that professors have supported the creation of this document when consulted at the Teaching and Learning Committee earlier this semester.

“It’s important that we’re outlining some ways that we can be cost affordable but also sensitive to the diverse learning needs of students,” said Pinto.