School textbooks crisis as negotiations collapse
Dennis Chong and Colleen Lee
The row between the government and publishers over textbooks intensified yesterday as a meeting between Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung and the companies broke down.
The publishers rejected the government's demand that they revise their textbook price lists by today and insisted on charging for basic teaching materials.
The government says the teaching manuals should be free while other kits such as CD-Roms can be charged for.
Wong Sing, chairman of the Anglo-Chinese Textbook Publishing Organisation, said: 'We hope the Education Bureau will withdraw its policy [U-turn] that allows schools to take free teaching manuals.'
It is the latest development in a long-running dispute over the bundling of teaching aids - such as manuals and CD-ROMs - with textbooks, which parents and the government say is pushing up prices.
Last year, the Education Bureau imposed a ban on publishers giving schools 'free' teaching materials while adding their cost to the prices students paid for the corresponding textbooks.
But on Monday, Suen said schools should get free basic manuals for teachers in an effort to 'streamline' the policy, though they not accept free CDs, statistical databases or practice exam questions, which were more expensive.
Ben Mak Ka-lung, deputy regional director at Oxford University Press and a representative of an alliance of publishers, said after yesterday's meeting the move had ruined years of efforts by publishers to set up a new pricing system.
'We are suffering,' he said. 'Mr Suen has not listened to what we have said many times.'
The alliance has complained to the Ombudsman about an 'administrative mistake' by the bureau.
With the government unwilling to pay for the materials, saying it should not subsidise private companies, schools are worried they will have to use their reserves to meet the cost.
Education sector legislator Cheung Man-kwong said he was canvassing support for a motion in the Legislative Council to call for a boycott of publishers in the next academic year. 'We should encourage schools to reuse textbooks, help each other and not to buy books from publishers,' he said.
Suen said publishers should 'think twice' on their next move. He said: 'They need to do business, parents need to buy books. They need to think about it.'
Following Monday's about-turn, publishers said they had completed their pricing exercise for the year assuming manuals for teachers, which can be two to three times more expensive than the students' books, would not be free. Yesterday they said either the school or the government should now bear the extra cost. The recommended book list for the year, which includes prices, was delayed due to the dispute.
Yuen Pong-yiu, principal of Tin Ka Ping Secondary School, said the school planned to set aside HK$60,000 to HK$100,000 in its reserves to acquire teaching materials for the next school year.
Liu Ah-chuen, chairman of the Subsidised Secondary Schools Council, said he hoped the government and publishers could reach a consensus soon. 'We cannot rely on our reserves in the long run,' he said.
The percentage of textbooks that fell in price after last year's ban on publishers giving schools 'free' teaching materials