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Possible privatization of the University of Calgary campus bookstore sparks worry from students

Textbook prices for students at the University of Calgary might be reaching new highs as the university looks to shake up the way the campus bookstore operates.

Earlier this spring, University of Calgary students learned that the university had potential plans to contract out its operation of the bookstore to Illinois-based company Follett.

The University of Calgary Students Union held a survey to gauge student feelings about this possibility.

The union recorded overwhelmingly negative sentiments from the survey. Eighty-nine per cent of those surveyed said they don’t want a privatized bookstore. Ninety-three per cent said the students union should be in charge of the bookstore.

Negative impact on students

The possible privatization of the bookstore leaves many students concerned about the price of textbooks, which are already high. Nicole Schmidt, president of the students union, said that this is stoking fears that post-secondary education will become even more inaccessible to struggling students.

“This is unequivocally going to have a negative impact on students. Students are already being squeezed by vast tuition increases and not being able to find or have access to the summer employment opportunities they’d normally have,” Schmidt said.

“Those economic constraints combined with the bookstore privatization is going to be a detriment to students. They’ll be paying more and have less choice.”

Data usage

Aside from the cost this may have on students, there are also fears about what Follet intends to do with student data. Right now, privacy policies ensure that student information can’t be sold. That may change if Follett takes over the bookstore.

Concordia University in Montreal went through this process already. An editorial on the Link Newspaper website stated Follet was free to sell student information to third parties. Schmidt said that other post-secondary institutions in Alberta have already had their bookstores run by Follett.

“We are unsure what this company will be doing with student data. SAIT, Red Deer College, Carleton, and Concordia have all quickly regretted their decision to sign on with Follett,” Schmidt said.

“We know that the company has come into these institutions and increased the price of textbooks. This is making it increasingly unaffordable to get the course material students need.”

University response

The University of Calgary released a statement that said they’re aware of student concerns. Also saying the student experience is a top priority.

“The University of Calgary is in the process of reviewing options for bookstore operations, taking into consideration feedback we received from our broad campus community during consultations. A decision regarding how bookstore services will be delivered on campus will be made in the coming weeks,” said the prepared University of Calgary statement.

According to the university, the revenue from the bookstore has dropped eight per cent. With the current cost of operating and expenditures, it’s not enough to keep up with that drop.

Linda Dalgetty, vice-president of finance and services for the university, said in a message to the campus community that the bookstore receives no funding from the provincial government or student fees. Students buying books is the only way the bookstore makes money.

“Students now have many choices to obtain textbooks. They are choosing to exercise that choice by buying textbooks online or finding options to borrow, rent or download textbooks,” said Dalgetty in that message.

In the survey conducted by the union, nearly 70 per cent of respondents said they use the bookstore as their primary source for course materials.

SU-operated bookstore

Schmidt hopes that the negative feedback from the students union survey will force the university to consider its options. Although the university hasn’t listened to calls from some students saying the students union should run the bookstore.

“Ideally, we would like the university to maintain operations of the bookstore. Failing that, the students union has offered to take over operations. The students union is a $20 million organization, which already runs several businesses from a used bookstore to a restaurant,” Schmidt said.

“We know we could run the bookstore. But the university has said they will not consider the union as an operator. Any further consultations on the issue have stopped.”

The decision on whether to let Follett run the bookstore will be made by the end of June.