Students hurt by pricey textbooks
Ways to create cheaper learning materials are being probed, but there are stumbling blocks.
University of the Witwatersrand second-year actuarial science student Awakhiwe Kona was awarded a R4?000 bursary by the Gauteng province to buy textbooks, but because they are so expensive he has not been able to afford to buy all the ones he needs.
“My [six] textbooks were expensive, so I didn’t buy [the] other textbooks [I needed]. I’ve had to use books I downloaded online for two mathematics modules,” Kona told the Mail & Guardian.
“These books are expensive. [We need] an awareness campaign to help make studying a lot easier for disadvantaged students,” said Kona, one of Gauteng’s top matric performers in 2012.
Costly textbooks comprise one facet of a larger crisis in tertiary funding that has seen widespread student protests this year, mainly over fees, inadequate state bursaries and limited, frequently substandard residences.
The ministerial task team on university funding, chaired by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and completed a year ago, concluded bluntly that universities were seriously underfinanced.
The team’s 400-page report included damning analyses of acute and unsustainable funding pressures on students (“Varsities too full to function,” Mail & Guardian, March 14 2014).
Even the R5?000 book allowance Kona’s bursary allocated last year did not cover all his textbook needs. “I depleted the money in the first semester,”he said. “In the second semester, I had to buy from my own pocket.”
All the students and university personnel the M&G interviewed over the past month agreed that the high cost of textbooks means many students cannot buy all the books they need for their studies.
For years, the government has repeatedly been urged to scrap VAT on books – a plea that former finance minister Trevor Manuel rejected in 2004, with his successors following suit (see sidebar below).
According to Statistics South Africa, textbook prices increased by the above-inflation percentage of 13.6% over the last year.
“Textbooks were only introduced in the consumer price index from January 2013, therefore only year-on-year rates from [then] are available,” said StatsSA spokesperson Lesedi Dibakwane.
When the University of the Free State last year invited students on its social network page to “help us solve the textbook problem”, a barrage of complaints about costs resulted.
“They are extremely expensive and editions change every year, too,” said one student.
Lacea Loader, the university’s spokesperson, said management “is well aware of the fact that textbooks are expensive and in some cases not affordable to students. This is a problem for universities across the country.”
At the University of Johannesburg, BComm student Mpho Mukwevho said: “Considering that you can use a textbook for only four months in a year, but you paid R2?000 for it, I think it’s a waste of money – and you don’t even use the entire textbook.”
Mukwevho said she has spent between R4?000 and R5?000 for her six textbooks this year.
Kona said that “a lot of students ... borrow textbooks from other students, or go to the library and just use it overnight. But the problem with not owning your own textbooks comes when it’s test or exam time. Like what I did for my maths [exam last semester], you go to the library and find that all those textbooks are booked.
“There’s a chain reaction: you don’t have textbooks, you fail, and when you fail the university excludes you. That is why you find on the statistics that there’s a certain group of people who get excluded more. There’s a need for something to be done urgently.”
A new campaign to get something done is gaining momentum in the Western Cape. The nongovernmental organisation Textbook Revolution aims to have university textbook costs reduced by 40%, said its founder Arthur Attwell.
This can be achieved by changing the way textbooks are printed and distributed. “Instead of universities buying a book, they would buy a licence to make copies,” Attwell said. “We can reduce the cost of textbooks by printing them on campus. It works more cheaply for everybody, because the publisher is being paid upfront and you can do as you like with the book.”
Predictably, publishers and booksellers are a “stumbling block”, said Attwell.
“It’s in no one company’s financial interests to drive the textbook revolution. But it’s in the national interest, as a society, to do so.”
Meanwhile, students often resort to buying secondhand textbooks, some in excellent condition. The secondhand textbook market in Johannesburg booms during and after registration at Unisa, said street trader Brian Mashau.
“It’s very expensive at the shop, whereas here we understand the plight of the students. Some of us [traders] here are students. Imagine, for example, you buy a textbook for R700, but you don’t even have a bursary. So, here we keep textbooks affordable because we know the importance of buying textbooks,” said Mashau.
Mpuka Radinku, executive director of the Publishers Association of South Africa, said publishers weren’t making a killing from textbooks. “We certainly don’t believe there is excessive pricing by higher education publishers who are members [of the association],” he said.
“We don’t think that a price of R350 to R450 for an undergraduate textbook is too much.”
But there was room for strategies that could be undertaken by publishers and universities “to reduce costs”, Radinku said. For instance, “bulk purchasing provides the option of ensuring access to content with reduced costs”.
E-books cost “slightly less” than hard copies, Radinku said. But “e-textbook sales in South Africa are still very low”.
Doing their best
Universities maintain they are already doing their best to ensure students can access textbooks.
Loader said the University of the Free State is using “various measures, including the issuing of study guides and reading packs for most disciplines”. Its school of medicine is “currently running a pilot project in which students receive their study material in paper-based and digitised formats. The digitised formats are also accessible on a tablet or iPad.”
Elitha van der Sandt, chief executive of the South African Book Development Council, said “there is still no [government] book policy, or any other plan to increase access to books”.
“It points to the book industry not being a priority – there is no dedicated plan to assist the industry. [Yet] we see dedicated plans in other sectors, such as the Motor Industry Development Plan, to assist these industries in becoming more competitive.”
Nan Yeld, director of university teaching and learning development in the department of higher education and training, said it was “working closely with universities to ensure that the full potential of textbooks and other learning materials is realised”.
“From an educational perspective, the value of textbooks cannot be overestimated.”
Zero-rating books ‘would benefit suppliers, not consumers’
The treasury remains unmoved by calls for zero tax on textbooks.
Lobbyists have long argued that the government should stop collecting VAT on books, including textbooks. Former finance minister Trevor Manuel shot down the idea in 2004 when he rejected a petition signed by 100?000 people. “The issue has come up repeatedly but we do not believe zero-rating [VAT on books] is the answer,” treasury spokesperson Phumza Macanda told the Mail & Guardian. “Our view is that consumers would likely receive a relatively small portion of any benefit arising from zero-rating. It would likely benefit suppliers more than consumers, as is the case with some items that are currently zero-rated.” She said “rising incomes, a more competitive domestic market and fostering a reading culture will have a more significant impact on the purchase of books than a change in VAT treatment would”. In a recent academic paper, Jeffrey Mabelebele, chief executive of Higher Education South Africa, called on the treasury and the South African Revenue Service (Sars) “to add academic books to the zero-rated goods list”. “This will not only increase the amount of money available to be spent on academic books, but will also significantly reduce the purchasing costs borne by universities and students alike,” Mabelebele wrote. Universities pay the 14% VAT when they buy academic books for their libraries, he wrote, “in spite of the fact that academic books are zero-rated in some parts of the world”. Mpuka Radinku, executive director of the Publishers Association of South Africa, said the organisation supported the call for government to zero-rate VAT on academic books. Nan Yeld, director of university teaching and learning development at the department of higher education and training, said: “The department is currently working on putting in place a national e-library that will help universities save on other costs such as licences”. In the meantime, “the department has also approached Sars to discuss the implications for universities around the liabilities of VAT not collected and paid to Sars prior to April 1 2014”. – Bongani NkosiZero-rating books ?‘would benefit suppliers, not consumers’