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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 May, 2012, 12:00am


The local textbook market has been seriously distorted with prices increasing almost annually. It's a long-running problem that has effectively pitted publishers against parents, making the latter feel they are being held to ransom.

The Education Bureau and textbook publishers have locked horns over the price issue for the past four years, with no resolution in sight. Negotiations broke down earlier this week, with publishers withholding the release of their price lists of textbooks for the coming school year, and complaining to the Ombudsman about the bureau's inconsistent policy.

The crux of the problem is the bundling of textbooks with teaching materials provided to schools. Textbook prices are high mainly because publishers add the cost of producing teaching aids - such as CD-Roms that are provided free to the schools - to the cost of the textbooks sold to students. In other words, parents have been forced to subsidise teaching tools.

In 2009, the government demanded that publishers separate the sale of teaching materials and textbooks. The plan was to be rolled out in 2010, but was deferred after publishers objected. Last year, the publishing companies eventually agreed to do this in three years, while the government banned schools from accepting freebies from publishers.

At the same time, Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung made it clear that the government would push the development of an e-textbook market to introduce competition and break the publishers' monopoly.

This year, when it became clear that prices for most textbooks published without revisions would remain the same or increase, even if they did not come bundled with teaching materials, Suen announced a policy U-turn and said schools could again accept free materials. Publishers reacted by withdrawing the price lists they had submitted.

They finally released the price list yesterday, but both sides are no closer to a longer-term solution.

The reality is that the prices of teaching tools are two to three times more than those of textbooks. So, if they are not free, schools would need to be subsidised by the government. But, the government is not convinced that charging for teaching materials is justified because they don't need to be revised every year.

The monopoly is a legacy from the colonial era. This massive market, estimated to be worth over HK$1billion per year, is dominated by only a handful of publishers.

If the government could assume responsibility for producing textbooks and then hand them out free to students, the problem would disappear right away.

Another approach is to copy international and ESF schools, where all textbooks are provided free by schools. One extreme measure would be to overturn the directive that stipulates schools must use only textbooks endorsed by the bureau. That would certainly eliminate the monopoly.

And if schools don't have the resources to produce their own teaching materials and textbooks, the task could easily be assigned to the highly paid Education Bureau officials.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk