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CALPIRG leads push for UC-wide open textbooks grant plan

Students and faculty have signed petitions asking the UC Board of Regents to implement a systemwide open textbook grant plan. The California Public Interest Research Group has its own textbook affordability campaign and is aiming to work with the regents on the program. (Kanishka Mehra/Photo editor)

By Diego Rivera and Hayden Carroll

Jan. 14, 2021 2:26 p.m.

University of California students and faculty are asking the UC Board of Regents to fund a systemwide open textbook grant program.

The California Public Interest Research Group, a student activist organization, began a textbook affordability campaign in 2007 after other student PIRGs started similar campaigns. CALPIRG now aims to work with the UC Board of Regents to implement a UC-wide grant program for open textbooks, said Prab Rai, the UCLA CALPIRG chapter chair and a fourth-year history student.

While open textbooks and traditional textbooks are written and reviewed by faculty, open textbooks are published under open licenses, making them cheaper or free to use. Because the textbooks’ open licenses usually allow revisions, professors can often customize these textbooks for their individual courses.

CALPIRG is aiming to establish an open textbook grant program similar to the Affordable Course Materials Initiative at UCLA, which gives grants to professors to implement open textbooks in their courses.

UC Regent Eloy Oakley, who also serves as the chancellor of the California Community Colleges, showed support for the campaign when CALPIRG leaders met with him in April, Rai said.

CALPIRG is speaking with students across all UC campuses to spread awareness about open textbooks, Rai said. The organization is working with the Undergraduate Students Association Council and plans to collaborate with the Academic Senate to garner support for open textbooks, Rai said.

“It takes just one conversation to start a movement or a revolution,” she said.

She added that CALPIRG also wants to meet with every UC regent to advocate to create a UC-wide program.

“Ideally we would like to have some sort of commitment by the end of this school year … (or) within the next two to three years maybe,” Rai said. “(It’s) definitely a long-term campaign, that’s for sure.”

UC students and at least 368 UC professors have signed more than 1,400 petitions since 2007 in support of open textbooks, according to data released by CALPIRG.

“It is a really big thing to be able to afford your textbooks,” said Dahlia Keo, a first-year biochemistry student who signed a petition in December. “I hope (the petition) points out to the UC Board of Regents that students really feel strongly about this.”

Rai said the UC adopting an open textbook program would hopefully inspire other universities to make college resources more affordable.

“I think education is the foundation for making a difference in our society, and I think that should be available to everyone,” Rai said. “If UC were to make this commitment to having a grant-funded program for open textbooks, they could really lead the way.”

CALPIRG prioritized gaining support from Oakley for the campaign because of his position as chancellor of the California Community College system, Rai said. The CCC system began to roll out a grant system, called the Zero Textbook Cost Degree program, in 2018, according to Inside Higher Ed. These grants funded classrooms to switch to using open educational resources, which students can access for free.

Rai said students should not be deciding between purchasing textbooks and maintaining their wellbeing while they pursue their education.

According to a CALPIRG report, students spend about $1,000 annually on course materials.

However, according to a report by Student Monitor, an independent third-party research firm, student spending on course material from the past six years decreased by 39%, with an average of $422 in the 2019-2020 school year.

Eric Weil, the managing partner of Student Monitor, said students have been paying less for textbooks because they purchase them using less expensive options, such as by buying digital textbooks. He added that students are also spending less because they purchase fewer textbooks.

Weil said he had no problems with implementing open textbooks because students may prefer them over alternative options.

Textbook publishers use different tactics to hike up the prices of textbooks, and companies like McGraw Hill use access codes that decrease affordability, resulting in publishing companies monopolizing knowledge that students need to succeed, Rai said.

However, publishers are giving students and faculty more affordable alternatives than ever before, said John McKay, the senior vice president of communications at the Association of American Publishers. Alternatives to traditional course material include rental options and open educational resources.

Companies like McGraw Hill, Cengage and Macmillan Learning provide their users with open educational resources among their other services, and all three companies had provided their users with open educational resources by 2019.

Cheryl Costantini, the vice president of Cengage Unlimited Product Initiatives, said she is concerned that professors may have difficulties aligning their syllabuses with the open textbooks available to them. Lessened access to properly aligned course materials could negatively affect the connection between professors and the materials they use, she said.

Uday Karmarkar, a professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, said he believes the textbook industry is on the brink of change because he has already seen changes take place in the music and newspaper publishing industries.

“Textbook costs are very high, in my opinion, they’re much higher than they need to be, especially today,” Karmarkar said. “I think the situation is ripe for change, and it will (change). We can see it happen in other industries, and it’s going to happen here.”

Easier access to adequate and updated learning materials can allow students to focus on paying for other aspects of college life. Keo said she supports open textbooks since she believes college tuition is already very high.

The economic crisis as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has increased financial struggles for students across the UC system. CALPIRG wants the campaign to lessen the economic hardships for college students, Rai said.

“Especially right now with (COVID-19), budgets are tighter, and the inequities among students are becoming a lot more stark,” she said. “Those really hard decisions are being made a lot more frequently.”

Grayson Peters, a fourth-year French and political science student, said he hopes the adoption of an open textbooks program by the UC system would lessen students’ struggles with accessing course materials.

Peters said fewer students would feel pressured to access course materials illegally or spend more money than is reasonable on course materials if more classes utilized open textbooks.

Open textbooks would reduce the burden of college costs on college students, Keo said.

“Having open textbooks will make the materials more accessible for students in the UC system,” Keo said. “(It’s) like having one less thing to think about when you’re attending college.”

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Diego Rivera
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