E-textbooks may help parents cut costs, Suen says

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2012, 12:00am


The government will not publish textbooks for schools, nor will it screen publishers through a central tender to bring down book prices, Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung says.

Instead, encouraging the use of electronic textbooks might be a better alternative in reducing costs for parents, Suen said.

The Education Bureau had dropped the initial ideas, which came up last year at the height of its dispute with the publishers, because it should not intervene directly in the market, he said. 'It is not feasible,' he told lawmakers on the Legislative Council's education panel yesterday.

Last year Suen said the bureau would consider fixing flaws in the market through its own participation. His warning came after publishers refused to separate the sale of pupils' textbooks from teaching materials within a year, which officials believed could lower textbook prices.

Publishers were accused of creating unnecessary teaching materials, such as CDs, and giving them free to schools while factoring the production costs into the prices of textbooks for pupils' use. Suen said yesterday a government-appointed task force had found market intervention was inappropriate and central tendering would be ineffective.

'The existing publishers can simply take part [in the tender]. Introducing new competition will be a more effective means,' he said, referring to a recent government push to develop the e-book market.

The announcement drew ire from legislators. Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong legislator Starry Lee Wai-king said the move was disappointing.

'You are over-optimistic. The e-book market will take time to develop and cannot solve the problem immediately,' she said. 'Are you now telling parents that in the next few years it is inevitable they will have to suffer the costs of expensive textbooks?'

Suen said the first electronic textbooks could go live as early as the beginning of the 2013/14 academic year.

He also rejected media reports that Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, head of the Chief Executive-elect's Office, had 'intervened' in the textbook row by calling senior bureau officials.

The bureau had no official communication with the incoming administration over the issue, he said. 'Before June 30, we are in charge. [Telephone calls] is not a type of [official] communication,' he said.

Undersecretary Kenneth Chen Wei-on said the bureau had temporarily put aside a proposal to share with the city's credit reference agency the credit data of people who could not repay student loans.

The authorities suggested last year it was considering a 'show-and-tell' policy under which pupils who deliberately refused to pay more than HK$100,000 debt for more than a year would risk having their credit data shared with the agency.