By Cristina Paolozzi, April 2 2021—
The University of Calgary is considering the privatization of its bookstore.
On March 26, Students’ Union President Frank Finley made a statement regarding the possibility of the transitioning the Bookstore’s operations to American company Follett. Follett claims to be a leader in general campus retailing at many different universities across North America.
“My colleagues and I are deeply concerned about a company with a less than stellar reputation operating the bookstore,” read Finley’s statement, which opposed the possible privatization. “In particular, I am concerned that we will be paying more for books because of this deal, the transparency of the deal itself (why is this the first time we’re hearing about it?), and ensuring that we continue to have choice about if and where we purchase our textbooks.”
A number of Canadian post-secondary institutions have seen Follett move in to their independently-owned bookstores and students have expressed concern with issues such as untimely textbook pick-up, loss of unionized positions for employees and rocky transitions.
Follett has come under scrutiny before, as companies representing independent bookstores filed a class-action law suit against big publishers like Follett in late January of last year. They claim that publishers like Follett have one main goal, to “eliminate competitors and raise prices.”
In an interview with the CBC, Finley stated that these cuts signal to students the inherent risk that comes with pursuing a university education.
Privatization has already happened to bookstores at post-secondary institutions like SAIT, after suffering layoffs in spring last year. The toll that privatization took on not only the students but the staff of the bookstore were worrying, as AUPE vice-president Kevin Barry expressed in a media release.
Barry stated that, “Privatized services cost more. Now the campus bookstore will have to make money for its owners on top of what operations normally costs. That’s going to result in more expenses for students and reduced wages, hours, and benefits for new staff. It’s that simple.”
During the Budget Town Hall held on March 29, Linda Dalgetty, vice-president finance and services, responded to questions surrounding the university’s choice to consider the possibility of Follett running the bookstore, saying that she has received a lot of “direct feedback.”
“We are exploring — just to make sure everyone is aware, there is a company called Follet and we are exploring whether or nor it would be advantageous to the university community to have Follet provide the service to run our bookstore as opposed to us doing it in house. That would be based on a consistent and sustainable model of support for our students and the broader community. No decision has been made at this time,” Dalgetty stated.
“This is a very complex issue and I’m not going to go into facts and figures but suffice it to say that we are looking for ways to reduce costs and that includes looking at our bookstore operations,” Dalgetty continued.
“The University of Calgary bookstore is a tremendous asset to the university, to the faculty and to the students,” said Justin Huseby, chair of Local, 052 of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), which represents support workers at the university, including bookstore staff.
“In 2019, the last year before the COVID-19 pandemic, the bookstore generated significant revenue for the university. We don’t have exact figures yet, but understand that the bookstore paid about $400,000 in rent into university coffers and we believe it operated with a surplus that could be hundreds of thousands more,” he said.
“This was done without adding to the price of books, which are sold on a cost-neural basis. This keeps them affordable for students. In previous years, under different management, the bookstore had not performed as well, but the staff and current managers have worked hard to put the bookstore on a sound financial footing. Their reward should not be to lose their jobs,” said Huseby.
“It makes no sense for the university to throw away this revenue, especially when they are seeing cuts to the budget from the Alberta government,” he added.
“Privatization will likely mean higher costs for students, because corporations need to earn profit and that profit has to come from someone. It could also lead to the loss of the book-loan and sponsored-student programs and the loss of the medical bookstore in the Cumming School of Medicine,” he said.
“With students already facing soaring tuition rates, cuts to programs and supports and increased interest rates for student loans, this is one more hit that many will be unable to afford. Many will seek to leave Calgary and Alberta to study somewhere where learning costs less.”
In a statement to the Gauntlet, the University of Calgary said that no decision has officially been made on whether Follett will be taking over, and that they will ensure to keep the campus community informed if anything changes.
“On an ongoing basis, we look for ways to reduce costs while continuing to deliver services to the community. That includes exploring whether services can be provided in an alternate manner that reduces costs without impacting the student experience. As an institution, we value open and transparent communication. We felt it important to let our bookstore team know that this was an option under consideration. No decision has been made, and any such decision would take into consideration the impact on students and our broader community. We commit to continuing to keep our university community informed,” the statement reads.
In response to the feedback that the university has received, Dalgetty says she thinks it’s helped the university recognize the importance of the bookstore on campus.
“We always knew it inherently and now we know it explicitly,” she said. “We will continue to do a proper exercise using data to make an effective decision.”