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The multi-million book syndicate in local universities

Tuesday November 24 2020
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By Jacob Mosenda

You are a lecturer teaching more than 800 second-year students, and decide to write books to help them access your own preferred course materials.

This is indeed a laudable step. However, you do not plan to distribute the books to your students free of charge. Neither do you want them to photocopy the books for everyone to have a handout. You compel the learners to buy the books at a price that suits you.

Your students get the book at Sh20,000, from which you pocket more than Sh16 million, from just one of your allocated classes. Isn’t this good business at the expense of the poor scholars?

It’s a good business indeed because each student must have the book, even if they already possess an inherited one (same book) from their predecessors. They are not allowed to use the old ones and this is exactly where the problem lies.

An investigation conducted by Success has established that lecturers in some local universities publish books (not scholarly books) and force students to buy them. Students have to buy the books for the lecturers tell them that’s where the exam questions would come from.

The Tanzania Commission for Universities (TCU), says publishing books, notes or handouts by lecturers is encouraged and that the problem may be in the way the students get these materials.

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“We know this process because it helps students find study materials. However, each university customises the practice according to its own procedures,” TCU’s executive secretary, Prof Charles Kihampa tells Success in an interview.

Regarding some lecturers using the opportunity to earn a living through students’ money, Prof Kihampa says the books being distributed to students may not be scholarly ones but ‘extended course materials.’

According to him, the materials should only focus on helping students, but if the lecturer goes against this goal, then the case becomes an ethical one, which should be handled by universities in question.

“The procedure is known, now if there is a lecturer who forcibly sells the materials to students, that depends on the procedure that the respective university has set,” Prof Kihampa observes.

Even so, universities are places that bring together learners from all walks of life, from the poor, rich and famous households, all with the aim of seeking education to help improve their lives and liberate their families from the abyss of poverty.

Parents or guardians mainly focus on raising funds to sponsor their children in paying tuition and hostel fees as well as survival allowance as that’s normally what is indicated on the websites/fee structures of these institutions.

However, it becomes a burden when students unexpectedly start incurring extra expenses. These cause those from poor households to wonder if their dreams of lifting their families out of poverty would ever come true.


How the business is conducted

One week before taking the French mid-term test, Fred*, 26, says, the lecturer announced in class that each student should purchase a book because there would be an open test (students enter the exam room with the specific textbook/handouts).

Fred didn’t worry because he had inherited the book in question (published by the same lecturer) from his brother who graduated the previous year.

What Fred and his other colleagues didn’t know was the fact that the lecturer was not going to allow them to use inherited books regardless of the fact that the books were exactly the same as the ones he wanted them to buy.

“I was confused the day before the exam for the lecturer told me he would not allow me to enter the exam room with the inherited book. He wanted each of us to buy a new book and register in person at his office, a procedure without which we couldn’t be allowed to take the exam,” he tells Success in an interview.

The second-year student studying Bachelor of Arts with Education, explains that over 800 students in his class who have been divided in A and B classes, bought the book. Some had to borrow money at interest just to make it into the examination room.

“Coming from a poor family, it hurt me a lot because I didn’t expect to buy the book I already had. Imagine I’m not even a beneficiary of government study loan,” says Fred, as he displays the book to Success reporter.

Fred says like others, he had to borrow money at interest to take the test. The lecturer didn’t allow him to pay for the book afterwards as he (Fred) had requested.

Success found out that the subjects, which have been customised in these practices include basic french, basic English, communication skills, whose books they were forced to buy. Another book that education students were required to possess was one titled ‘Concise Introduction to Educational Assessment, Measurement and Evaluation.’

Another student who preferred anonymity says the lecturer required the more than 300 students in her class to buy the book directly from his office. Students had to sign and write down their registration numbers on a special form as proof that they bought the books.

Over 300 Bachelor of Laws (LLB) students bought the book for Sh10,000 each.

“The lecturer insisted that we should buy the book since most of the questions would be centred on it. This disturbed us but we had no choice,” the LLB student reveals.

Students say it would be fair if the lecturers took some of their (lecturers) books to the library so students could access them easily instead of being forced to buy them.

“It’s not that we don’t want to buy these books but it clearly shows how the lecturers are using us to make money. It could be optional in that those who can’t afford to buy, can find them in the library or photocopy from colleagues,” says another student.

He wishes the expense was included in the fee structure from the beginning because not all students are loan beneficiaries.

It was also revealed that some lecturers collaborate with owners of stationery shops around campuses to sell handouts to students after which they share the profit.

“The lecturer usually brings his notes here, which we print and sell to students for between Sh8,000 and Sh10,000 per handout. We give the lecturer 60 percent of all sales and take the remaining 40 per cent,” says one stationary operator, as he’s surrounded by students in need of the notes.

Students say that the lecturer only teaches and directs them to a specific stationary where they would find the notes.

“After purchase the notes, we have to go to their offices to show them that we have bought the notes,” one of the students laments.

When contacted to respond on the allegation, one of the accused lecturers who teaches French at one of the universities (name withheld), declined to comment.

“... Listen, I do not know you and I do not want to talk about it and also you cannot force me ... I repeat, I can’t do so even if you have been sent by the government. Go and tell them I have refused,” he shouted over the phone before hanging up.

Pauline* an assistant lecturer claims that students are the reason lecturers see business opportunities because they (students) always want to get the notes at the stationary shops and that they never complain.

“Most students do not complain about the system because they want to have the notes, so lecturers decide to collaborate with a certain stationary where the materials can be accessed,” she says.

A lecturer at one of the universities pointed out that due to lack of follow-up by the administrations, a large percentage of lecturers took it as an opportunity to lure students as they encouraged each other to publish books for sale.

“Sometimes it seems like an opportunity that’s why every assistant lecturer now publishes a book even if it’s less than 100 pages. In fact, they make more money compared to their salaries,” he explains.


Students’ leaders take

Speaking to Success the students’ leaders at one of the institutions said they could not address the issue because the administration seemed to be okay with the practice. Neither did the students complain openly bout the situation.

“In the past we would probably have protested against this but these days every student struggle to complete their studies. And yet, the ones who complain silently are those without money to buy the handouts. Other students see it as a normal part of seeking university education,” a president of one of the students’ organisations explains.

Others say the method is very common but students are hesitant to complain about it even though they don’t like it.

“I haven’t heard any student complain about the habit but we recently had a meeting with top management where we agreed to remove the open tests, which are taken as part of legalising the business,” he narrates.

The dean of students in one of the institutions says it is a normal procedure in colleges and universities for lecturers to publish and sell books to students.

However, he points out that the practice should be done in accordance with the right procedures and without influencing students to buy such books.

“In every course there are important requirements such as the need for additional books/study materials, so I don’t think it’s a bad idea if the lecturer consults the responsible organs,” he explains.

When asked what the procedures in his institution were and whether the lecturers who sell books adhered to them, he said; “I haven’t received any complaints from students about the directive from lecturers and my office is open for students to report. However, we’re going to follow it up.”

When contacted via telephone, the vice-chancellor of the same university promised to follow up on the matter, but accused Success of aiming to tarnish the image of his institution.

“There is a system for lecturers to publish books that has been identified by TCU. In fact there may be some who are using the opportunity to earn income from students…, we will follow it up even though you may have been sent to try and taint our image,” he observed.


Experts speak

“I haven’t published any textbooks myself and have no plans to do so. In any case, my personal preference would be to make the books available to students for free, if at all possible,” opines Prof James Nkumba, a part time lecturer at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

He narrates to Success that he could assign readings or homework questions from the book and students could certainly be able to do the assignment by getting a used copy or borrowing one from a friend.

“But probably most students would buy new copies anyway, since that is the most convenient way, but I cannot force them to have the book either,” he says.


Way forward

Dr Hellen Massawe from the University of Dodoma is of the view that academic freedom requires that professors should be able to choose the most appropriate references for their courses. According to her, the professors’ own books would often be a perfect fit for the course that inspired it.

“However, it’s important to avoid even the appearance of assigning one’s own book in order to make profit. That would be offensive at any university and often illegal at public universities (violating conflict of interest laws for government employees) as well,” she reminds.

For his part, Joseph Mrema, a retired head teacher, who is now an educational consultant, opines that if a lecturer puts a few copies of the book on reserve at the library, students can refer to the text without being required to buy it. This, according to him, mitigates the conflict a bit.

“There are plenty of good options as well for using one’s own book without profiting from one’s own students. The most common one would be to let your students have the PDF of the book for free,” he discourses.


* Names have been changed.

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By Mgongo Kaitira