Student nipple sucking

I can’t really blame Australian Young Labor for attempting to clamp its collective lips on the public tit in the wake of the Rudd government’s accession to power.

I don’t even violently object to their proposal that students be allowed to add the cost of textbooks to their HECS loans.  What I do resent, however, are the blatant falsehoods and exaggerations their President Sam Crosby is using to sell the idea. 

For a start, in most disciplines impecunious students aren’t in fact relegated to competing for a sole Closed Reserve copy of course notes from the uni library.  Except for a few troglodyte areas, the norm these days is for course materials to be made available in electronic form on a “courseware” website run on a Blackboard or WebCT platform.  The cost of downloading and printing notes for a subject will generally be the cost of a ream of A4 paper at most.

As for prescribed texts, I’m sure there are some that cost $250 as Crosby claims, but most of the besser block-sized cases and materials texts we prescribe in law subjects cost no more than $150 brand new. 

Moreover, students will almost always be able to purchase second hand copies of the current edition or a serviceably recent one for a fraction of the new price.  Although you should certainly ask your lecturer before proceeding, in many areas a recent superseded edition will be perfectly adequate as long as you listen in lectures for references to any new developments.

Textbook publishers’ enthusiasm for new editions every 2 or 3 years is often motivated by similar considerations to planned obsolescence in the car industry rather than by any genuinely vital need for undergraduate students to have up-to-the-minute fingertip access to the latest case or amendment.

And that leads to the central problem with Young Labor’s proposal.  All it will really achieve is to subsidise and perpetuate academic publishers’ enthusiasm for fatter bottom line profits, while largely removing student incentives to shop around for perfectly adequate second hand texts.  Indeed, by undercutting the market for secondhand texts, it may well actually create further disadvantage for poorer students who rely on selling last semester’s textbooks to help pay for those they need this semester.    

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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8 Responses to Student nipple sucking

  1. Liam says:

    This post did not even remotely live up to the promise of its title. Shame, KP, shame.

  2. Patrick says:

    I agree. I did fine my final two years of law without buying a single textbook – there are more copies in the library than there is demand at any time of the year except the week before the exam and frankly I probably spent more time reading them than the vast majority of students that had read them.

    And if you don’t have a textbook you might be tempted to actually read cases!

  3. simon smith says:

    oh they’re only $150? thats alright then

  4. Richard Green says:

    Making the textbooks deferable would, by themselves, merely make the textbook publishers richer for no virtue on their part, especially since the high discount rates of impoverished students would make paying $200, $300 or $400 in the future all the same.

    So maybe this is workable if it is a bit more like the PBS. If only listed textbooks would be deferable, than unviersities and government could negotiate with publishers to both bargain the price down and prove the virtue of new editions, just like new or altered drugs on the PBS are.

    This gets complicated since the government is putting up the cash, but universities need to choose texts, but it could be one way of making this scheme workable.

    The better option would be to wait til decent displays make reading textbooks digitally practical.

  5. It wasn’t quite clear from Crosby’s article how he thought this would work, but it sounded a bit like HECS as a student credit card. I agree that has problems. But there are other ways of doing this. What he is effectively calling for is a relaxing of the maximum student contribution amount. If this was done, universities could bundle services more than they do. For example, universities could simply buy the textbooks themselves and distribute them to students, with the cost built into student fees. Or they could guarantee semester-long loans for books that every student should have.

  6. Laura says:

    Ken, I think you’re exaggerating about the inexpensiveness of course readers and course notes. I do everything possible to organise cheap or free materials for my students but in some cases there is no option but a printed course reader which students have to buy (paying I understand for the cost of copying and the copyright fee.)

    At my institution it is absolutely forbidden to use WebCT / Blackboard to distribute any copyrighted material and the uni copyright officer apparently goes through the units checking. He wrote to me last year asking about the provenance of an image in my unit’s pdf reading guide. We are not even allowed to link to youtube videos from webct. Only the library is allowed to make copyrighted material available via scanned pdfs on e-reserve, and there are copyright restrictions on what they can do there as well. They can’t put more than one section of a work online for instance so if someone has put up a chapter of the same book you need, you have no option but to make a purchasable copy in course notes, or to put the physical book on reserve and that is when it will have to be shared among all the students taking the unit.

    I see students buying hundred-dollar textbooks for other disciplines but I understand the text concerned is usually the only one needed for the unit. Eng Lit students also have heavy expenses, it not being unusual to need to have your own copies of ten novels not readily available secondhand and retailing for between $20 and $30 each. I think a loans scheme for book buying is not a bad idea, especially if it means more students actually read the books they’re attending university to study.

  7. Vee says:

    Certainly not the case at the university I attended.

    “…relegated to competing for a sole Closed Reserve copy of course notes from the uni library.”

    This was usually the case.

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