Issuing of textbooks list delayed
Dennis Chong and Jennifer Cheng
Schools and parents may be stuck in limbo as a list of recommended textbooks for this year is put on hold amid a deepening dispute between education chiefs and publishers.
The Education Bureau postponed the release of its annual list, due yesterday, after publishers retracted their book prices the night before in response to a policy U-turn on giving free teaching manuals to schools.
Last night, the bureau imposed a deadline of tomorrow on publishers to unveil their book prices for the coming academic year.
The government was creating a lose-lose situation, an education observer said, with students set to face price increases when publishers lost trust in officials. School principals said the deadlock could affect their operations.
'May is typically the time when teachers decide what textbooks to use for next year, because by June, they will be very busy with exams,' Liu Ah-chuen, chairman of the Subsidised Secondary Schools Council, said. 'The problem now is that the government will not publish its list of approved textbooks.'
A few key players dominate the HK$1.5 billion textbook industry and they increase prices even during bad economic times.
Last year, the bureau imposed a ban on publishers giving schools free teaching materials in return for charging the cost of those items to pupils who bought the corresponding textbooks. The ban was meant to force cuts in the price of pupils' textbooks.
On Monday, however, Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung said schools were allowed to take free basic manuals for teachers in an effort to 'streamline' the policy, but not accept free CDs, statistics databases or practice questions, which were more expensive.
Publishers said yesterday that they were caught out by the about-turn, as they had finished calculating their new pricing strategies based on the ban. Two textbook publishing business groups withdrew their pricing information following Suen's announcement.
The bureau's list of recommended textbooks comes out around May every year to help schools compile their own book lists for pupils in the coming academic year. The list includes publication details, pricing based on publishers' information and education officials' assessments of the books.
Ben Mak Ka-lung, deputy regional director at Oxford University Press and a member of an alliance of publishers, said pricing for pupils' textbooks must be adjusted if teachers' guides were now made free.
Mak said he hoped to get their new pricing database ready 'in a day or two' after they clarified matters with the authorities.
Parents said the publishers' move was unacceptable.
'We cannot accept the publishers' withdrawal [of their price lists], which will lead to a further rise in prices,' Jao Ming, a member of a government advisory group that examined the textbook industry, said.
The ban last year resulted in only a few textbooks becoming cheaper, according to data collected by the bureau before the price withdrawal.
About 15 per cent of pupils' textbooks saw a price drop of 1.4 per cent, while prices for 55 per cent of books were the same as last year.
The remaining 30 per cent were costlier this year by an average of 2 per cent.
Concern group Education Convergence's Chow Ping-yan said it was a lose-lose situation.
He said it seemed the latest policy shift showed the education authorities did not want to fund schools to buy teaching materials, although schools would face financial issues having to buy teaching tools after having received them for free for years.
'When they have HK$500 million to introduce the national education subject, why can't they spend some money to help teachers buy textbooks?' Chow said, referring to funding on a new course for primary and secondary schools.
Suen said yesterday that publishers were unreasonable and stirring up a storm as the costs of producing teaching materials were low.
'I am disappointed that the publishers are stirring up a storm over this. They have been producing this teaching booklet for many years,' he said.