In The New Times issue of September 10th 2013, an opinion entitled “When the national university’s bookshop became a food store” was published, authored by Mr. Stephen Mugisha.
The main point of the article can be summed up in the allegation made by the author, and I quote: “…NUR found it inconsequential and irrelevant to maintain the university bookshop, which has since been turned into a food store!”
By any standards this was a well written article, and one that touches on a subject that is dear to us all. Indeed, the importance of the subject can be gauged from the sentiments the same allegations in the article generated on the internet.
I thank the author for opening up a discussion on this important topic of the state of educational facilities in the nation, in general, and on the fate of the NUR bookshop, in particular.
As is often the case though, the devil is in the details, and as I hope to establish here, the same details do not support the premise implied in the allegations against NUR.
In retrospect, I believe a more informative article would have resulted if the author had taken time to consult with NUR authorities for relevant information, prior to writing the article.
Such information about the NUR Bookshop would have thrown some light on, for example, how exactly the current status quo evolved, what alternatives exist and what remedial action (if any) the University may have in store.
In any case, to the extent that such information is still relevant here for setting the record straight, among other things, I will in this response present it, albeit in a limited version.
While, as the author correctly points out, both a bookshop and a library are important learning resources, it is useful for the purposes of this discussion that the two be distinguished with regard to the way each operates.
In particular, a library (which I return to later) operates as a service, while a bookshop (the main feature of the author’s article) operates as a (for profit) business. Moreover, as a business, a bookshop can either enjoy success or have shortcomings.
The NUR Environment: The history of the NUR Bookstore has been one of twists and turns, and one of shortcomings and losses. Incidentally, the latest round of closing was not the first; the Bookstore reopened in 2009 following a previous closure.
Before quantifying the actual losses that led to the latest closure, it is useful to first highlight on the environment in which the Bookshop operated. There are several circumstances that have acted in concert to create a hostile business environment for the Bookshop. They include the following:
NUR is bound by mandatory tendering regulations. The restrictive nature of these regulations puts the bookshop (and other ventures) at a significant disadvantage with regard to fair competition for the local markets.
The region has a very low purchasing power.
In search of cheaper alternative sources of books, potential customers (students especially) have taken to electronic (internet) resources such as Amazon.com.
The NUR Library has been evolving into a modern resource both in volume, scope and sophistication.
Clearly, the above environment constitutes a mixed bag of circumstances, including some that are desirable, as can be inferred in 3 and 4.
Losses: Given the above circumstances, it is not surprising that since its reopening in 2009 the Bookshop operated under a cloud of chronic loss. Indeed, the following summary of the Bookshop “earnings” during the post-reopening period illustrates the point:
In the fiscal year 2009/2010, the Bookshop registered a net loss of Rwf44,435,206, In the fiscal year 2010/2011, it registered a net loss of Rwf50,716,335 while in 2011/2012, the Bookshop registered a net loss of Rwf56,659,544.
The above losses were bad losses not only because of the large sums involved but also because of the apparent downward-definite trend, and its implications. The hemorrhaging situation was unsustainable, and the options limited! In 2012 NUR decided to pull the plug on the Bookshop temporarily, as a tactical retreat, in order to buy time for the University to ponder its next move. It would have been not only bad economics but also utterly irresponsible for NUR to proceed otherwise!
Way Forward: NUR will continue seeking for ways (as suggested below) to resuscitate the Bookshop. More importantly, however, NUR takes an objective view of the situation from the following big picture vantage point. At NUR we understand that the existence of a bookshop is not an end in itself but rather a means to an end; the end being the impact associated with improved education of the local community. As already implied above, there are other supplementary ways this noble end can be approached:
For example, it is important to embrace and nurture the other (and latest) “means to the desired end”, namely the internet, in part because it is many more times resourceful and in part because (whether we like it or not) it is here to stay! This view is corroborated both by the world market size internet news is currently commanding at the expense of traditional news paper, and by the popularity of internet-based bookstores like Amazon.com.
It is important that we continue to invest in the growth and modernisation of our library systems. Remember, for many practical reasons the library can be a far more powerful educational resource than a bookshop. Moreover, unlike a bookshop, a library is also a free resource!
At NUR we are continually investing in modernising our library. These investments include continued increase in volume and scope of our books on shelves, growing the electronic sector of the library, increased capacity building through Masters and PhD training of librarians, to name a few. As a matter of fact, significant piece of funding (for the next 5 year phase) has been apportioned for library improvement.
Finally, with regard to plans to resuscitate the Bookshop, NUR has recently put forward a business plan in which several business ventures and services, including the Bookshop, can be operated as companies under a general holding company. Obviously, the success of this proposal is predicated on the University having a fair chance to enjoy (like others) a level plain field in business competition.
To this end, the upcoming University of Rwanda (UR) will be requesting a certain amount of autonomy, including relaxations in some of the Procurement Regulations that currently govern NUR. A viable business engagement will, in turn, have the advantage of setting the UR on a growth path that is self-sustaining, and one that, in time, eases the burden on the Government with regard to financial support.
It is worth noting that virtually all public institutions that command academic excellence have depended for their growth on the support of the earnings from their business ventures. Examples include world-renown institutions such as the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan, to name a few. Our sister higher learning institutions in the region have lately been adapting this approach with success.
It is with this background that NUR would like to strongly refute the allegation that “…NUR found it inconsequential and irrelevant to maintain the university bookshop…” and its implied message that NUR does not care to support the education of its local community. Indeed, the truth is to the contrary and NUR continues to live up to its mission: "Excellency in Education and Service to the People!"
Dr. Manasse Mbonye is the Acting Rector of NUR and Professor of Physics