SFU’s “Sharing of Textbook PDFs Fact Sheet” fails to consider students’ constraints

The university needs to stop making the high costs of post-secondary education a problem for students to solve

Photo by Andres Chavarriaga/The Peak

By: Gabrielle McLaren, Editor-in-Chief

I want to preface my crankiness over SFU Library’s “Sharing of Textbook PDFs Fact Sheet” by stating that I understand intellectual property laws. I understand why they’re so important to protect the work of academics and other content producers. Is it crazy for a university to discourage students from pirating textbooks? No. I’ve been lucky enough to borrow textbooks from friends who’ve taken classes previously as well. I’m also lucky to be in a discipline with few $250 textbooks. Otherwise, I buy my textbooks legally and manage to do so through a lot of price-shopping, and by mostly buying used and electronic copies.

That being said, this is the extent of what I can do as a student. SFU’s list of alternatives to textbook PDF sharing demonstrates a lack of consideration for students’ financial realities, and a lack of institutional initiative and responsibility.

In answer to the question, “What can I do if I can’t afford my textbook?” students are advised to do three things:

The first recommendation is for students to check to see if their course materials are available at SFU libraries. But if more than a handful of students are looking to save textbook costs this way, one course will quickly exhaust the library’s resources. Likewise, some web licenses only allow you to download and print a few chapters of an ebook (so hopefully your prof hasn’t assigned a whole text), or even limit how many students can be reading at a time. If you happen to be in a class where the professor has restricted or banned electronic devices altogether, then cheaper electronic options may not even be that useful.

The next suggestion is that “Students can also contact an SFU financial aid and awards advisor to discuss possible options that may be available for the term.” This is honestly kind of insulting. As a student who isn’t majoring in an applied science or criminology, my summer 2019 scholarship options are limited. I was only eligible for three scholarships this summer, none of which I am likely to receive. I’m going to spitball here and say that this applies to a lot of students.  

If the rise of movements like SFU Tuition Freeze Now and the growing trend of students working throughout their degrees tells us anything, it’s that students are struggling to afford our education, even taking into account whatever financial aid the school has been able to offer. SFU telling students who are pirating PDFs to simply get more money if they also want to buy groceries is frankly belittling. Students don’t struggle financially for the fun of it, and pirating textbooks is a sign that students have exhausted all of their “get more money” options. Scholarships, bursaries, and work-study are all helpful options, but they are limited in what they can do for us, and who they can help.  

SFU Library also lets students know that they can “encourage their instructors to consider using Open Education Resources (OERs).” While OERs are a useful and tangible solution to this issue, it again fails to acknowledge what is realistic to ask for students. By the time a student gets a syllabus, the class’ structure and materials are pretty much already set in stone — so you’re stuck with the textbook pricetag. While a lot of professors do use OERs or build their reading lists out of articles available through the library, they do it out of the goodness of their own hearts, out of consideration for their students, and by factoring in what materials are best for their classes.

This unfortunately may mean that the $275 textbook really will be the best resource. Whatever the reasoning behind textbook choice, it’s unrealistic that an undergrad will shake a tenure-track professor who’s been teaching the same class for 150 years into changing the syllabus that they’ve crafted. Asking students to affect this kind of change is unrealistic and unlikely.   

That being said: could SFU implement textbook price caps for classes that would encourage professors to get creative and look for alternative materials? Could SFU offer professors stipends and other incentives to go out and redesign their syllabuses to make them as affordable as possible? Yes. Absolutely. Could SFU modernize its digital learning policies to make it so professors can’t stop you from using your laptop or tablet to read digital textbooks and materials in class? Sure.

These institutional changes are all possible, but the university would need to act. Expecting students to do more than we are already doing — which is throwing money at the bookstore and hoping for the best — is unproductive and won’t get us anywhere.