Why Do Bishops Charge So Much For School Text Books?

“Grow In Love” – 20% more expensive than next priced text book.

The Irish Catholic Bishop’s Conference, through their agency Veritas Publications, are the monopoly provider of religious text books to all Catholic schools in Ireland. In the context of this monopoly, their new “Grow In Love” text book for senior infants is 20% more expensive than the next highest priced equivalent text book, even though “Grow In Love” is a less substantial publication according to every metric.

In correspondence with the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) on this topic, it was first necessary to establish that the Irish Catholic Bishop’s Conference do indeed have a dominant position in this market. Mr David O’Connell, Head of Investigation within the Competition Enforcement Division of the CCPC, said:

“Almost 90% of primary schools in the State are under Roman Catholic patronage, while on the island of Ireland as a whole, approximately 80% of primary schools follow a Roman Catholic ethos. Given that primary schools are obliged to follow the religious instruction curriculum established by the patron, Veritas, as the sole provider of text books for religious instruction in these schools accordingly supplies 80% of the overall [island of Ireland] market, and is therefore likely to occupy a dominant position.”

To understand exactly how dominant this position is, it is worth noting that the Irish Catholic Bishop’s Conference:

  • have exclusive control over the curriculum on which the text books are based
  • are the monopoly publisher for the mandatory religious text books used by senior infants
  • are the exclusive price-setter for these text books, with no competitors whatsoever
  • retain patronage over 90% of publicly funded schools for senior infants in the State
  • have influence over the purchasing decisions for their own text book products, through their relationship with school managements
  • can make the purchase of their products compulsory for Irish parents of senior infants

The State requires parents of senior infants to send their children to school and in very many cases, funds Roman Catholic schools as the only available option. The purchase of some text books is made mandatory by these schools and the religious instruction text books for senior infants, are among the list of text books that must be purchased by parents (either directly of through the school).

The table below provides a comparison between the Grow In Love text book for senior infants (published by Veritas as an agency of the Irish Catholic Bishop’s Conference) and the Spellbound text book for senior infants (published by Folens). It is also worth noting that this comparison for Grow In Love has been performed not against an average text book but against the next most expensive comparable senior infants text book. There are some other senior infants text books from other publishers that are similar to Spellbound published by Folens (such as Spellbound published by CJ Fallon) but which are priced cheaper again.

 

Comparison Table

Comparison between “Grow In Love” and the next most expensive comparable senior infants text book.

 

Based on any and all of these measures, the costs of producing the Spellbound publication would seem to be substantially above those for Grow In Love and yet the price of the Grow In Love book is 20% higher. For English and Mathematics senior infants text books, parents are protected from price gouging by competition. That is, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment specify the curriculum and then multiple publishers compete to offer the best quality text books at the cheapest price. However, parents do not enjoy this protection with respect to the cost of religious instruction text books. They can only rely on the Irish Catholics Bishop’s Conference to unilaterally decide on a price point that is fair.

It seems clear that if the Grow In Love books were offered at the same price point as other comparable products where competitive publishers exist, then Irish parents would save hundreds of thousands of €uros. It should also be noted that while Grow In Love only exists for junior infants and senior infants today, the Irish Catholic Bishop’s Conference has already announced plans to release similar new text books for 1st through to 6th classes inclusive. These are also markets where exactly the same issues pertaining to their dominant market position exists. As such, this is not only a large problem but also a growing problem.

It is not illegal to hold a dominant position in any market but it is illegal to abuse this position by applying an excessive selling price. In relation to this point, Mr David O’Connell, Head of Investigation within the Competition Enforcement Division at the CCPC, said:

“A number of practical enforcement difficulties arise from the difficulty of determining whether a price is, in fact, excessive. Significant resources would likely have to be assigned to assessing Veritas’ fixed, variable, marginal and avoidable costs. This is a resource-intensive exercise and, currently, the CCPC is not in a position to divert staff from other work streams to carry out this analysis.”

So with insufficient resources available at the CCPC to investigate, Irish parents can rely only on the good will of the Irish Catholic Bishop’s Conference to ensure that no excessive selling prices are applied. Given that the purchase of these books is made mandatory, even for the most disadvantaged families in the State, it would be welcome if the Irish Catholic Bishop’s Conference could reconsider whether or not they must demand 20% more than the next most expensive book, in order to cover their costs.

John Hamill
Promote Secularism in Ireland
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