As university orientation weeks get underway, cash-strapped students have launched a new campaign for cheaper textbooks.
National Union of Students (NUS) welfare officer Robby Magyar is visiting campuses around the country collecting signatures to add to a Change.org petition to present to the Federal Government.
“The cost of textbooks is a massive problem,” he said.
“Students struggle every single day to make ends meet, particularly if they move out of home.
“If they are working to support themselves studying, textbooks are an added cost that really needs to be fixed.”
A 2012 Universities Australia survey found textbooks topped the list of study expenses, after tuition fees.
Nearly one-in-five tertiary students reported regularly going without food or necessities.
Mr Magyar said university textbooks could cost as much as about $200 per subject, per semester, for subjects like law, medicine and the sciences.
Victoria University law student Sarah Schaefer Rivilla said she was considering dropping a subject this semester because her prescribed and recommended reading list for four subjects cost more than $1000.
“My older brother did a law degree a few years ago but I can’t use most of his second-hand books because the editions have changed,” she said.
“I earn around $400 a week. I will have to find a way to pay for them – credit card, I guess.”
She said online resources were improving, but most students still preferred physical books for note-taking and open book exams.
The NUS said reforms to make textbooks more affordable were overdue.
“Our campaign has gathered 2500 signatures so far, and we expect to double that in the next few weeks,” said Mr Magyar. Some of those signatures are online, others on paper.
“I’ve also been talking to ministers about the American concept of funding open textbooks, where an open copyright license makes digital content accessible and cheap,” Mr Magyar said.
Students being ‘gouged’ by parallel import restrictions
There is a fierce debate about competition in the book industry.
Free market reformers claim students are being gouged because Parallel Import Restrictions (PIRs), which provide territorial protection for the publication of many books in Australia, are preventing booksellers from sourcing cheaper editions from overseas.
Last November, the Federal Government accepted the Harper Competition Policy Review’s recommendation that PIRs be lifted, to ease the burden on book consumers.
Further action is awaiting the outcome of the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into Australia’s intellectual property arrangements, due later this year.
Publishers and authors are against deregulation, warning that local printing industry jobs are at risk, along with the crucial backing needed to support Australian authors and local content.
The previous Labor government rejected the removal of the PIRs.
Australian Publishers Association spokesman Paul Petrulis said global market forces, in particular online sellers like Amazon, were already putting the squeeze on Australian textbook publishers.
“The actual market is under a lot of stress,” he said.
“There’s a lot of mergers, a lot of books are no longer being published because they just can’t meet any margin.
“It is a very difficult environment at the moment, right across the whole value chain from publishing to bookstores.
“We might talk about the cost of books but we’re not talking about the margins, which are low.”
When asked if $180 was a fair price to pay for a legal studies textbook, he explained that educational books have low-print runs, requiring highly specialised input from academic authors who must also divide their time between teaching and writing research papers.
“You’ve got to look at the value, if the course costs $2000 or $3000 for one unit and the cost of the book is $180,” Mr Petrulis said.
“For 5 per cent of the cost of the course, the book actually provides maybe 60 per cent or 70 per cent of a students’ actual learning and their value towards getting a good result. I think that’s reasonable value.”
Second-hand books not a solution
Frequent edition changes, which make it difficult to buy or sell second-hand books, is also a common frustration for students.
“If you go on to Amazon or you try to find a second-hand copy you can get the cheaper book,” said Mr Magyar.
“But quite often the course content is slightly different; they are older editions sometimes.
“So you will either have different content to everyone else, or you might even get the book delivered too late to actually do the subject.
“Student unions try to do a bit. They offer reimbursements and loans to try to help, but when it comes to university management, there is pretty much silence.”
The Council of University Libraries Chair, Wendy Abbott, said books were available to borrow, but it was not feasible to provide enough copies for every student.
She said libraries were continually working with academics to find new models of digital learning, and to make online resources more freely available.