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.
Oxford University Press South Africa (OUPSA) recently collaborated with Cornerstone Institute to host a Critical Dialogues series addressing the issue of textbook piracy in higher education in South Africa. The panel recently contributed a wealth of perspectives. Janine Loedolff, Publishing Manager for Higher Education at OUPSA, discussed the significant impacts of piracy on the publishing industry. “We’ve observed a sharp decline in textbook distribution through bookshops and e-tailers, a trend also noticed by other publishers. However, students still seem to possess textbooks, predominantly as electronic copies on laptops and cell phones. Our research indicates that the vast majority of these are illegal, pirated copies circulated through channels like 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 panellists 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.