Oct 252012
free or cheap text books becomes important for British Columbia

British Columbia’s government has announced they are going to make most undergraduate textbooks free online or printed at low cost as part of their BC Campus program.

One of the first lessons for university students is that they are going to be robbed at the campus bookshop – text books are one of the greatest rorts on the planet.

This scam takes several forms with faculties stipulating the latest editions as course material through to individual professors having a nice little earner in demanding their, often poorly written and out-of-date, textbooks being essential reading for any unfortunate student taking their classes.

Naturally all of these books are sold at eye wateringly high prices far in excess of what equivalent texts are selling for outside the university bookshop.

Given all of this it’s no coincidence that the publishers who specialise in academic texts have been the least affected by the online models that have undermined the business models of the mainstream book sellers.

Over the years there’s been a range of business ideas to setup exchanges to circumvent this legally sanctioned extortion racket and most have failed as the universities and faculty members have protected their cash cows with various tricks to prevent students from buying reasonably priced textbooks.

That British Columbia’s government now sees that this is a barrier for cash strapped and debt ridden students is an encouraging sign and one that recognises the 1990s model of treating students – particularly international students – as easy money is over.

For the Canadian and Australian education sectors which had come to depend upon an expensive “bums on seat” model of financing their faculties, the waves of change and competition is now threatening them.

Probably the biggest threat to this model is from the top tier universities offering courses online. This is radically changing higher education as it’s making it easier for poorer people to access the best institutions.

For the second rate institutions, this means they have to be providing real value for the fees they charge. A certificate purporting to be a degree is not going to be good enough.

While it’s too early to call the end of the textbook ripoff – people don’t let juicy little rorts go easily – its days are numbered. Although we may find the old scams replaced by something DRM related.

Image from Visual Notes of Honourable John Yap’s announcement at #opened12 / Giulia Forsythe / CC BY-NC-SA

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