Cape Town, 30 October 2023 – Last week, an essential dialogue regarding the issue of textbook piracy in higher education took place at Cornerstone Institute in Milnerton, Cape Town. The event was a collaborative effort between Oxford University Press South Africa (OUPSA) and Cornerstone Institute and forms part of a series of Critical Dialogues. Various panelists, including a local publishing professional, educators, and students, gathered to dissect and discuss the multifaceted impact of textbook piracy on South Africa’s academic landscape.
Textbook piracy has emerged as a formidable obstacle in academia, marked by the unauthorised reproduction or distribution of copyrighted educational content. This illicit activity has far-reaching ramifications, negatively impacting authors, educators, and ultimately, the students. It undermines the financial sustainability of educational publishers and authors, diminishing the incentive to produce high-quality, locally relevant educational content.
The panel brought a wealth of perspectives to the discussion. Janine Loedolff, the Publishing Manager for Higher Education at OUPSA, elaborated on the tangible impacts of piracy on the publishing industry. “We have seen a steep decline in the number of textbooks we distribute via bookshops and e-tailers. This is also true for other publishers. Yet at the same time, students seem to have textbooks; notably electronic copies on their laptops and cell phones. Our research has shown that the vast majority of these are illegal pirated copies which are being distributed on channels such as WhatsApp and Telegram.”
She continued to explained the cycle whereby piracy leads to reduced funding for content creation, which in turn escalates prices, further burdening the students and the educational ecosystem at large. “We need to change the perception that textbook piracy is a commercial publishing problem. The more piracy affects publishers, the less funding is in the system to support content creation, and less content will be produced. Which then again can drive pricing up which again impacts the end-user, the student. This cycle could influence authors to gradually move away from publishing. This will again limit the dissemination of knowledge, especially for our local context.”
Dr. Shaun Viljoen, the Deputy Dean of Education at Cornerstone Institute, highlighted the indispensable role of reading and literacy in the youth’s educational journey which starts in their homes. A home that encourages reading can benefit children who then later pursues their tertiary studies where textbooks are fundamental. But this doesn’t take away from the challenges and financially constraints the youth faces when they step into the tertiary education chapter of their lives. With this, Dr Viljoen noted: “The gap between rich and poor in the world is growing obscenely”.
He emphasised the necessity of collaboration among various stakeholders, including librarians, lecturers, and publishers, to support accessible and affordable educational resources, thus bridging the existing inequalities.
According to Loedolff, if more stakeholders can work together, publishers create more reasonable business models that can accommodate students facing such challenges. “If a higher education institution is willing to work with the publisher, we will always try to find a solution that can work for everyone. If an institution can commit to distributing to all of their students, we then know it is a worthwhile initiative. We know that the offer to the student is more affordable and we know that every student gets a customised book.”
Elton Splinter, a student pursuing his BA Psychology at Cornerstone Institute, brought forth the students’ perspective, articulating the economic hardships faced by many, which inadvertently propel them towards piracy. His insights shed light on the need to reconsider and re-evaluate the conventional models of educational publishing and distribution, aligning them more harmoniously with students’ financial realities.
He conducted research among a selection of students to understand their perspectives on textbook piracy. He found that most students don’t view piracy as a significant issue. Splinter identified two main groups of students: those who cannot afford textbooks and those affected by South Africa’s socio-political challenges. He also explored the impact of education on employment opportunities in South Africa, finding that merely having a matric certificate is often insufficient for securing a job, as many employers now regard tertiary qualifications as a basic prerequisite. The study suggests that, due to the elevated role of higher education as a fundamental requirement in the job market, there could be a constitutional basis for providing higher learning textbooks as part of basic education, as per the Constitution Act 108 of 1996.
Dr. Glenda Cox, a senior lecturer in the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching at the University of Cape Town, contributed her insights into open-access resources, urging a collective reconsideration of knowledge dissemination mechanisms. The dialogue between the panelists unearthed an array of considerations, urging a holistic understanding of the textbook piracy phenomenon and its intricate connections to broader socio-economic factors.
The conversation gravitated towards innovative solutions and strategies to curb textbook piracy, including the employment of technological advancements. The integration of more sustainable business models, collaborative efforts among varied educational stakeholders, and the exploration of digital formats like e-pubs were discussed as viable pathways forward.
Closing the event, attention was drawn to the socio-economic adversities faced by a substantial majority of students, with a particular emphasis on those reliant on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). In 2023, NSFAS experienced a significant influx, supporting over one million students, a statistic that underscores the significant role of financial assistance in facilitating access to higher education in South Africa.
Podcast: The Cape Town Daily show interviewed Janine Loedolff, who chats about textbook piracy and the impact it has around the value chain of publishing and the implications thereof. Listen to this insightful conversation that highlights a crucial issue affecting our education system.