Regulate textbook pricing

Even as COVID-induced pandemic caused large scale disruptions in academic calendar, the crisis opened a window for mass remote learning, by capitalizing on the power of internet. This unprecedented crisis proved a blessing in disguise as it led to a beginning to cultivate the culture of online learning in all educational institutions. Somehow, students who were forced to remain away from classrooms, to stay safe from coronavirus infection, enjoyed the online tutoring and must be elated today to step into next higher classes.

Actually, at this point of time we find an atmosphere around us where beginning of a new academic year has been rolled out. An enthusiasm among the students has been created by the schools by conducting online examinations, and then grading the students on the basis of their performance in such examinations. Basically, the month of November is always a festive season for school children as well as the school managements.

For children, it’s merry-making time as they are promoted to next higher classes. More than that, they enjoy the time to have new set of textbooks, notebooks and other stationery items.

For school managements, it’s time to make quick buck, which they usually consider one-time chance in a year to grab hefty profits. It’s not through collection of few months’ tuition fees in lump sum or annual charges. In fact, the school managements, directly or indirectly, get engaged in the sale of textbooks and notebooks, and that too at exorbitant rates.

It’s a known fact that monopolistic practices of the textbook publishers and their nexus with the school managements is a set precedence here, happening well under the nose of authorities. The trap is foolproof as they constitute a compulsory purchase. For a kindergarten kid the parents have to spend anything around Rs.5000 on the textbooks and notebooks alone.

On a few occasions in the past, I discussed the issue of arbitrary pricing of textbooks and nexus between publishers and the school managements in this column. Now a report published in this newspaper on November 13, 2020, highlighting unethical practices of textbook pricing makes a sense to focus on the lingering loot which the school managements and the publishers have been resorting to without any check. The news report while quoting sources reveals that textbooks worth over Rs 150 crores are sold every year in Kashmir. “The prices are fixed by the publishers as per their sweet will, and in connivance with private school managements. “Publishers mostly from outside of the state send books with higher MRPs (Maximum retail price). A book whose cost would be around Rs 30 is sent here with MRP tag of Rs 300. Publishers’ agents fix deal with school management and fleece the gullible parents,” the report quoting sources said.

In the backdrop of this news report, there are certain facts which merit a mention. Actually it’s not only the rising cost factor, but the unnecessary series of ‘mandatory’ textbooks prescribed by schools adding more financial burden to the parents. For instance, a class Ist student in English, has a course book, one or two work books, a literature textbook and one or two grammar textbooks. Take the case of note books. Most of the note books go waste, even if they are only 60 pages each, as only half the pages are used by the end of the year.

It’s also a common practice here in schools to revamp textbooks or try new publishers, ruling out any chances for parents to take route of getting a used bargain. In most cases, the publisher supplies directly to the school or through a distributor.

Here an important question arises – where does the textbook money go? A tentative look at this aspect reveals that  one-fifth of a textbook price goes to the store where it is sold to cover personnel and operating costs, while more than three-quarters goes straight to the publisher who spends around 12 per cent on marketing the textbooks, approximately 10-15 percent goes to the authors.

Even college textbook prices have gone out of control increasing faster than tuition and health care costs. The rising cost is not a short-term phenomenon; it’s rising much faster than average inflation in the past few decades. Ask any parent and they will tell you just how outrageous are the costs of college education today.

In this context, let me take you through some stunning facts. The mounting cost of education is eating up a major part of the household budget. Some time back, an Assocham survey had revealed that 65% of parents spend more than half their take-home pay on their children’s education, extra co-curricular activities placing significant burden on their family budget. Today, the percentage must be much higher.

Parents spending on a single child’s education in 2005 was Rs 35,000 and in 2011, it was Rs 94,000 on such items and activities as integral to the school curriculum like fees, transport books, uniform, stationery, building fund, educational trips, extra tuitions and extra-curricular activities. Today, one can easily imagine such expenses running in lakhs of rupees. And one can also workout the financial miseries of parents whose income must have got a major hit due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, it’s noteworthy that textbooks are a fulcrum of any system which seeks to provide quality education. It’s through these textbooks that the minds of children in their formative years are shaped with  a profound influence on how they interpret reality. The content of these textbooks, as told by an expert in the field of school education, is a crucial disseminator of fundamental values of citizenship, values that we need to pass on to the next generation. Thus the textbook is of vital importance and has a significant impact on the educational development of students.

Historically speaking, textbooks have always remained an integral part of the school education system. In the early post-independence period, lack of good quality textbooks was a concern while promoting mass school education. However, over a period of time, textbooks saw major interventions and became integral part of education policies.

Today, when the system has grown by leaps and bounds, the production of textbooks has assumed status of a most significant industry where profitability has never remained a concern. In fact, textbooks and allied products are considered as one of the very profitable fields for investment.

In absence of a regulator, the off-shoot of the expansion of the textbook industry has been uncontrolled production and distribution of low quality, sub-standard and badly produced textbooks. Unfortunately, the availability of textbooks at affordable prices for the poor and even lower middle class has become an important issue.

Precisely, textbook publishers have exploited (and continue to exploit) their unchallenged power in the market through a variety of tactics designed to drive up the cost of new books, and undermine cheaper market alternatives like used textbooks.

So, what is the immediate remedy?

The government should put a blanket ban on changing the textbooks every year unless it is extremely important. And schools should be directed not to print school name on note-books as they are costly and available only with particular stationers. And failure to do so will see registering of an FIR against the school. This practice is already in place in some states.

At a time when COVID-19 has forced policy makers to have a relook at the respective policies and realign these policies with the pandemic-induced changed dynamics, it would be appropriate to tailor regulations for textbooks. Textbook sticker prices may appear small in comparison with the larger costs of tuition fees, annual charges etc, but its impact on the household budgets ends up with financial miseries to the parents. So, the issue shouldn’t be overlooked and addressing this problem needs to be prioritized. Meanwhile, educationists and concerned experts need to act together and investigate the degree at which rising prices of textbooks actually affect student’s financial standing. In a nutshell, the case for prioritizing action around textbook prices should be urgent and effective.

(The views are of the author & not the institution he works for)