Today I revisit a matter that I first raised on this column on April 2013. That column was about the strike at the Limkokwing University of Creative Technology which was about the matter of books and the expensive bookshop. The students at the institution decried the Mickey-mouse bookshop at their institution which was supposed to service their complex academic demands but had repeatedly failed dismally. As these things usually do, everything moved rather swiftly, the police came with batons. The students sang and danced. Chaos reigned supreme and the university was closed. The strike was declared illegal and the SRC as usual was suspended. Nothing new under the sun.
At the time I observed that “The problems faced by Limkokwing students are not unique to them. The University of Botswana is also facing a similar challenge and one hopes that the University of Botswana challenges would find a much more dignified resolution. I must also observe that perhaps the book crisis is not only at tertiary level. The recent reports of unavailability of books at secondary school are worrying. Now imagine the worst case scenario where students who went through their secondary school with minimum reading come to university where there is a books crisis. Our human resources would be in shambles. This is why it is important to look at the matter of books critically.” That was in April 2013. It is now turn for the University of Botswana students to sing and use excessive hyperbole. The subject is still the same: books and an expensive bookshop.
The UB’s students’ contention is that since Books Botswana enjoys absolute monopoly on campus, it now charges exorbitant book prices at will. This leads to the inevitable: students unable to purchase books for their courses, which in turn leads to increased failure rate, plagiarism and diminished intellectual activity. I bear testimony to the high book prices on the University of Botswana campus and to be fair it doesn’t favour anybody. It is bad for government since part of the sponsorship student money ends up lining the pockets of shareholders of Books Botswana. The situation is bad for the university since the high book prices inhibit book ownership by students, impacting on learning, teaching and the quality of student research. The university also incurs additional costs since lecturers periodically have to duplicate handouts to augment their teaching, when these could have been accessed by students directly from their books. Let us face it; high book costs negatively impact on the students. The minimum expectation of a university on its students is that they should read extensively without fear. Such an expectation presupposes that such students have something to read. One of the problems facing UB students is that they do not read enough. This is in part because they do not have sufficient material to read and also in part because a culture is now establishing itself at UB; that many students can survive from one year to another with minimum reading. I am therefore not surprised at the high failure rate at UB since much of it can be explained by making reference to the lack of books. I would be troubled if there wasn’t a high failure rate at UB and students could succeed without books. Something would be terribly wrong.
I don’t know how we have come to commercialize the provision of books at tertiary institutions. I went to UB in the 90s. One attractive arrangement about the book matter during our student days at UB is that there was no bookshop acting as a middleman between the student’s funding and books. The university had its own bookstore where, once armed with a simple printout, a student could collect all the relevant books for a course. There was therefore no need to credit any money into a student’s account as it is now the practice. The lecturers also prescribed books not concerned about whether they would be affordable to students or not. They knew that books were guaranteed. Every year we therefore queued, yes long queues, to collect our wheelbarrow load of books. Many of those who went to UB at the time have decent bookshelves in their houses built during their UB days. The current book arrangement is inelegant in many ways. First, the government has to make an estimate of the cost of books, an estimate which is usually conservative since the campus bookshop is terribly expensive. Sometimes the books are not there since the bookshop cannot buy the books which there is no guarantee that they will be bought. The students are also not innocent in this arrangement. Many students buy bags, Bibles, diaries, novels and other material sold by the bookshop which is not relevant to their study.
I suggest two ways to get out of the current morass. First, kill the middleman. Close all the bookshops in tertiary institutions and have the tertiary institutions directly acquire books from the suppliers and distribute them to the students. In large institution such as UB this could be dealt with at faulty level. This system will guarantee books to students and there will be no money credited to students’ account. The second option is to keep the bookshops and instead create an account in the bookshop for each student. All the students need to do is sign for each book from the bookshop. The bookshop will then claim from the sponsor using the sign-up forms signed by. This again will achieve two things: guarantee books to a student and eliminate crediting a student’s book account with money that may be abused by the student.