University students’ strenuous hunt for second hand textbooks

Tony Cai scratched his head and sighed, as he stared at a receipt of the pile of brand new textbooks on the table. After spending almost all of his living expenses on buying new textbooks for university, he started to wonder whether he could survive on his meagre savings.

Cai is a 20-year-old HKU student from Mainland China. Living in Hong Kong on his own, he is worried about the numbers shown on the ATM screen of his bank account. Unlike stereotypical Chinese parents who offer to pay for their child’s university school fees, Cai’s parents wanted him to be more independent and only provided a small amount of money for his everyday expenses. This includes his spending on school supplies. At the beginning of the semester, his bank account has almost nothing left due to the pricey textbooks.

Getting a second-hand textbook for university is not exactly the easiest task in Hong Kong, and there are limited ways to do so. At the beginning of every semester, university students have to pay thousands of dollars to purchase new textbooks. Professors distribute clear instructions to students to purchase books from official university bookstores, but there are other alternatives that help students save money. This includes the use of second-hand textbooks, where seniors from the previous year sell their used resources to juniors.

However, some students do not know how to obtain second-hand textbooks, since most of the used textbooks are sold on social media platforms or directly by senior students. If one does not know any seniors, it may be difficult to buy a second-hand textbook. Although there are some platforms on the Internet that offer second-hand textbooks, there are no official organizations in Hong Kong that offer a platform for student to trade used textbooks.

“Textbooks in Hong Kong are way more expensive than I expected,” said Cai, after spending all of his living expenses on buying new textbooks, “Never had I anticipated that textbooks are luxuries to me. Though they are very pricey, I still had to purchase them because I need them to graduate.”

When asked if he ever tried to get a used textbook, he appeared to be slightly shocked at this suggestion. “I never thought about it,” Cai said, “I’ve never used textbooks back in Mainland China. Books in Mainland China are more affordable. I did not know we can buy second-hand textbooks and there was not an official place selling second-hand textbooks. Nobody ever tells me about where can I get a second-hand textbook.”

Like Cai, most freshmen do not know how to buy used textbooks. Some of them may not even think of getting one.

While there are many used textbook stores around Hong Kong, almost all of them trades exclusively in secondary school textbooks. Without the right source, university students often experience difficulties looking for used textbooks and saving money.

Textbooks that are used in university are different from the ones used in secondary schools. Since there are a large variety of faculties, departments and courses, and each year new courses are introduced, while some are cut down, this results in a large variety of textbooks needed. However, only a limited number of those textbooks tend to be available in the market, because only less than a thousand students enroll in the same course in one university each year. Therefore, the supply of used textbooks for that course is low.

Pile of French textbooks. Photo by: Felix Mittermeier

“We don’t sell textbooks that required by colleges or Universities,” said Jenny Lau, a manager of a second-hand textbook store, “It’s (Universities textbooks) so diverse. Also, there is no potential in this market. No one is going to buy a used textbook in our store because there is no storage here. No one is selling the exact book that they want.”

Since there is not a large official bookstore that sells used college textbooks, most of the freshmen have no ways to purchase used textbooks. Most students choose to follow the booklist that was given by teachers and get them from official bookstores instead of searching for it in used textbook stores or smaller bookstores. Sometimes, all the efforts go up in smoke due to the small size of the market.

The Internet becomes a handy tool for university students in their hunt for cheaper textbooks.

HKU 2nd hand bookstore is a Facebook page that is meant to be a platform for students to post their old textbooks for sale and requests from people who wish to buy something. However, the page remains to be inefficient and of low usage, as few people are posting any information of textbook selling on that platform.

Platforms that are known to trade used textbooks, such as Amazon and EBay are not highly accessible in Hong Kong. On Amazon, the service that rents textbooks out to college students cannot be used here in Hong Kong, since most of the textbooks are provided by overseas sellers that are in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. The shipping fee is often ten times higher than the book itself and even more expensive than brand-new ones.

Although there are several sellers in Hong Kong, few students know about it. In a survey done at HKU, only one out of 45 students knew where to buy second-hand textbooks, but the result was not always positive. In addition, it is often difficult to ensure the quality of the used textbook.

Shelf with Spanish textbooks. Photo by: Anne Karakash

“Once I got a used textbook on eBay, but it seemed too old, and the pages turned yellow and very fragile. There were also some ‘masterpieces’ handed down by last four or five owners which I did not appreciate at all,” said Crystal Leen, a student who had an unpleasant shopping experience on eBay.

Used textbooks are not always refundable. Therefore, there is a certain amount of risk in purchasing a non-refundable textbook. This poses a barrier for students who want to purchase second-hand textbooks but are worried about its quality and reliability.

Since it is hard to get a used textbook, some students may choose “illegal” methods to save money, such as photocopying textbooks that have been purchased by friends. Most students photocopy textbooks knowing that it is illegal.

An owner of a printing store, who wished to remain anonymous, admitted that he knew photocopying textbooks is an infringement of intellectual property rights, but said that many students, especially university students, still come to his store and ask to photocopy entire books.

“I did photocopy textbook once,” said Cheung, a full-time university freshman. “We do not know any seniors who want to sell their old textbooks, my friends and I bought one book only and made 3 copies of it in a printing store to save money.”

Trading used textbooks not only saves money for university students, but it is also more environmentally friendly. By doing so, it also reduces the chances of students obtaining teaching materials illegally.

Hong Kong needs a bigger platform for university students to buy and sell used textbooks, which would create a win-win situation for both students and the environment.


Editor: Kinnie Li

Reporter: Ivy Li

Copyeditor: Amanda Har

Content Manager: Cassadee Wong

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