Wrong war waged against publishers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2012, 12:00am


Michael Suen Ming-yeung's tenure as secretary for education has been lacklustre. But he must have thought his declaration of war last year on textbook publishers would earn kudos from parents and critics. It looked that way for a while until the publishers thumbed their noses at him.

Far from bringing down book prices, Suen's efforts have actually backfired. By this time each year, the Education Department should have published a recommended textbook list for schools and parents. But the lobby groups representing more than a dozen publishers are playing games this week by refusing to release their book prices. This causes the government to delay the textbook list's release.

The government's case pivots on the publishers' bundling of essential classroom textbooks with optional teaching materials. By forcing them to 'debundle', the government thought that would push down prices. This it first did by banning publishers from giving 'free' teaching materials to schools while stealthily passing the cost on to parents. But then, many teachers and schools complained about having to pay for what were once 'free gifts'. So officials have lifted the ban.

In their fantasy, they probably hoped the publishers would voluntarily absorb the cost. This week, the publishers say they need to recalculate prices in light of the ban being lifted. In plain language, they need to pass on the cost to parents if schools will not pay, just like in the old days. We are back to square one after all the wrangling and mutual recriminations.

Suen will be out of office by July. Whatever policy the new education chief pursues, it does not look like textbook prices are coming down any time soon. The future of classroom publishing is in interactive materials like e-books. Suen's HK$50 million plan to encourage non-profit publishers to develop e-books is a good start. But it's the commercial publishers who have the copyright and experience in developing content.

Textbook publishing is not exactly a monopoly. It's time for both sides to make peace and try to work together to develop more appealing and state-of-the-art teaching content.