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Academic booksellers have warned of an “academic tsunami” if the government’s student bursary scheme continues to pay textbook allowances directly to students.

Financial pressure on these book stores and stationers has mounted as some are closed or face closure. Sales for the year plummeted by more than R500 million.

Academic book sales declined by as much as 40% compared to last year, after the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) policy changed this year from controlled, ring-fenced payments for learning materials to paying the cash to students.

The Alliance for Academic Success warned the steep decline could lead to a possible demise of the industry. This comes at a time when the academic curriculum needs quality-assured and expert content that could address decolonisation of education.

“Our concern is money, that the public funds allocated primarily for the purchase of textbooks and other learning materials, is not being spent on textbooks. There are no longer control systems to assess or evaluate student spending on learning material,” the alliance warned.

Almost 90% of undergraduate textbooks used in South Africa are locally developed with local academic authors, editors, publishers and production.

“Without a vibrant and commercially viable industry, we could quickly lose the intellectual and industry skills to author, collate and disseminate South African knowledge,” said the convener of the Alliance for Academic Success, Mohamed Kharwa.

Kharwa said as much as 15 bookstores around the country had closed or were in the process of closing.

Data collected by booksellers also showed that the highest drop in sales had been at universities with higher percentages of NSFAS-funded students, institutions that were regarded as predominantly historically disadvantaged as well as rural campuses.

At the University of Mpumalanga’s Siyabuswa campus, sales dropped by 91%. At Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela University and Fort Hare the trend had also been consistent.

The decline in sales also affected second-hand book sales. 

He said data from a study of a similar policy change that was made in Botswana in 2017, also sounded warning bells.

“It showed a similar major decline in book sales, and also showed a drop in pass rates, performance and an increase in drop-outs. We are deeply concerned that a similar ‘academic tsunami’ will be felt here.”

He said there was almost a certainty that the policy change was the reason for the sudden and large decrease. 

“No other major policy or structural change between 2018 and 2019 could explain it,” Kharwa said.

He said although electronic undergraduate textbooks had been available in the country from booksellers for almost a decade, they still made up less than 1% of textbook sales.

Kharwa warned that the change in buying patterns would have devastating medium to long-term consequences to the publishing of local content knowledge in South Africa.

He said the alliance had engaged with the Department of Higher Education Science and Technology as they determined policy and with various stakeholders since early this year. But he expressed fears that the policy looked set to continue next year despite the warning signs. 

“We will continue engaging with all stakeholders to determine a way forward that ensures students’ academic futures are not compromised,” he said.

The Department of Higher Education did not respond to questions.

Weekend Argus