Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/10/2009 (4218 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The idea is not entirely novel. Book-renting websites such as Chegg.com and Bookrenter.com have customers at thousands of American schools. But the UMSU plan is, at least in Canada, one of the first book-renting initiatives to originate on a university campus.
Not without its flaws, The Textbook Lending Program is good policy.
Textbooks are expensive. Publishers have a limited, yet captive market. While used textbooks are only good for a year or two, they eat into publishers' thin profit margins. Bizarre federal regulations that grant some book distributors monopolies to import certain titles push up prices further.
With some textbooks costing upwards of $200, students can easily spend more than $1,000 on books each year. In contrast to the union's constant and often ineffective whining over the cost of tuition, the textbook rental plan is tangible. It will actually put money in students' pockets. It is not big, but the rental policy is enterprising.
Participating students will have to pay a 15 per cent rental fee and provide an additional 50 per cent deposit. The portion of the deposit returned declines by five per cent depending on the condition of the book. A student who returns a book in A+ condition, will get all 50 per cent, 35 per cent for a book in B condition, and so on. The deposit is forfeited if the book's condition is graded F.
The union also plans to take steps to ensure that the program is mostly self-sustaining, possibly stalling a situation where students not participating in the program are asked to subsidize those who are. "We will not continue the program if it looks like we will have to continue sinking money into it to keep it afloat," UMSU president Sid Rashid told me via e-mail. "The cost of building a stock of books is simply too high to support if it is not largely self-sustaining."
As Rashid acknowledges, there are some serious obstacles to keeping the program both self-funded and broadly available. Including courses that have smaller class sizes or only one section would obviously be tricky. There just might not be enough participating students to make it viable. The fact that textbooks can be updated as often as every year is another obvious obstacle.
As a testament to the healthy design of the project, UMSU chose to pilot the plan with introductory math courses because the math department has committed to using the same books for a few years. This is possible for courses, like introductory calculus, where the material remains relatively static over time. The same cannot be said for upper-years courses where students are more likely to engage with new academic developments.
Students might not like having to buy brand new books, but for many fields, even in introductory courses, the material becomes quickly dated. It is also debatable whether renting textbooks is even a good idea for the intellectually motivated student. No doubt many books collect dust after exams, but building a library of academic dead trees is very useful as students advance in their studies and reference material becomes more important. For some technical fields, like mechanical engineering, textbooks are excellent tools even after graduation.
If renting textbooks were to catch on, it could have the unintended consequence of raising the cost of books even higher, as publishers seek to recoup lost sales. This would affect the price of all books, not just those eligible to be rented, as academic publishers put out titles in many different fields.
Still, despite these flaws, the Textbook Lending Program is a worthy proposal that could prove quite popular. Everyone hates paying for books.
Carson Jerema recently completed a postgraduate program in politics and is a former editor of The Manitoban