Carrying the cost
Leung King-sing, a father with four children, is upset at rising textbook prices, which have deprived him of the chance to go on overseas trips with his family. The last time the Leungs, who live in Fanling, went away together was three years ago, for a stint in Beijing. Now, the money goes on textbooks.
Last year, Leung paid HK$9,000 for his children's textbooks. The year before, it was HK$8,200. Two of his children have just finished Form Six, while one other will be in Form Six and the other in Primary Five in September.
Adding to his frustration is that even the recent stand-off between textbook publishers and Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung failed to halt rising prices.
The stand-off was over a Hong Kong government policy that banned free gifts from publishers, who since last year have also been required to separate the sale of teaching materials from textbooks. The ban was intended to stop publishers transferring the cost of the teaching materials - which are two to three times more expensive - to textbooks.
This month Suen announced that schools could take free basic teaching guides from publishers, though not free compact discs, statistics databases or practice papers, which are more expensive.
Things have not changed much as a result. Of the 723 textbooks on the Education Bureau's list of recommended books for the coming academic year, 102 are cheaper by 1.4 per cent, 222 are priced on average 2 per cent higher - some as much as 4 per cent - than the year before, and the cost of 399 remains unchanged.
'The percentage increase varies from book to book, and even a small overall rise in price can mean a big difference to us because some books are expensive in the first place,' says Leung, who is an inspector at the Water Supplies Department.
Jao Ming, a parent representative in a government advisory group that examined the HK$1.5 billion textbook industry, says: 'The rate of increases is lower than the inflationary rate but we are given a full books list and some books have gone up in price by 4 per cent.'
Publishers have two more years to unbundle the sale of textbooks and teaching materials. Currently, 80 per cent of secondary textbooks have yet to be sold separately from their related teaching packs, says Liu Ah-chuen, chairman of the Subsidised Secondary Schools Council and principal of Christian Alliance SW Chan Memorial College.
'Unbundling has only a limited effect on prices,' Liu says. 'Half of the free teaching resources are useless. It varies from subject to subject, from school to school on which materials are useful, and also depends on whether teachers have the room to develop their own materials.'
Science in the New World, a not yet unbundled text published by Pilot Publishing for Form One students, costs HK$128, up from last year's $121. Also for the same school level, the unbundled i-Science, by Manhattan Marshall Cavendish Education, costs HK $130, up from HK$125.
In tackling what he calls a 'monopoly' in the market, Suen recently announced a HK$50 million plan to develop e-books, providing incentives for non-profit organisations and universities to develop online materials. E-learning platforms are common in international schools.
But it takes vast resources and additional teacher training to support e-learning, educators say. And some parents have reservations about their children becoming even more glued to the computer screen.
Ben Mak Ka-lung, a representative of the Anglo-Chinese Textbook Publishers Organisation, dismisses claims of a monopoly, saying: 'competition is rife here because the local market is too small.'
The education reforms launched over a decade ago made it much harder for small publishers to enter the market, as more complex teaching materials are needed now than before. The wide variations in students' abilities also require different versions of the same texts to be made. 'Small publishers cannot produce books that meet the needs of the curriculum change. There is no monopoly because, as shown on the government book list, for each key subject there are several types of books available for people to choose from: you can't call this a monopoly.'
He dismisses the latest policy U-turn as a political ploy to please parents. Publishers groups have complained to the Ombudsman about the latest policy change.
The industry has a limited profit margin, 10 per cent at best, adds Mak, who is also the deputy regional director of Oxford University Press. The only possible way to force prices down, he adds, is for the government to publish the books, which raises the issue of independence.
'A price has to be paid,' Mak stresses. 'There is little room for further reductions in prices. There are not enough profits here and it is difficult to attract top-notch authors to write textbook series.'
As some families struggle with paying for books, the government is left to foot part of the bill through the textbook assistance grants scheme run by the Student Financial Assistance Agency. This year, the government forked out HK$655.8 million in grants for needy families, a sharp jump from last year's HK$440.6 million - perhaps an indication of the city's growing low-income class. Under the scheme, needy families can receive support of more than HK$3,000 - close to the amount required for the purchase of secondary textbooks for a school year.
Parents and principals have called on publishers to use poorer quality paper to cut costs. They have also suggested a wider circulation of used books or having surplus teachers produce school texts. More consumer education may be useful too.
'Workshops can be held to educate parents on what not to buy,' Jao says. 'We do not need new versions of story books, and in today's internet age, neither do we need to buy printed dictionaries.'
Chris Durbin, the English Schools Foundation's secondary school development adviser, supports interactive learning made possible by e-books. 'The rise of quality sources of digital information via the internet is increasingly supporting learning, and students can reach higher levels of understanding with sources that are more motivating and will extend them further,' he says.
'For example, textbooks have video elements and not just still pictures. Graphics are not static but can move. The future of the textbook may be partially seen in the iPad digital book Our Choice by Al Gore as an example of this multimedia enhancement of a book. Online internet sites associated with textbooks have tests that give you marks and the next level of test much quicker than any textbook. This form of interactivity is a challenge for publishers.'
Native-speaking English (NET) teachers criticise the excessive reliance on textbooks here and the many mistakes they find in them.
'We spend our time having to drill things that we think are completely superfluous because it's in the textbook; there is a massive disconnect between what students are being taught through the textbooks and what they need to learn,' says Amanda Chapman, chairman of the NET Association. Her fellow NET teachers tend to develop their own resources and share with one another.
A wider problem is whether local teachers have the time to generate materials tailored to students' needs. Another obstacle could be the deeply entrenched culture of textbook-based teaching here.
'They are part of the system and it is how they [teachers] learned. That is why they are so frightened of the new senior secondary syllabus,' Chapman says. 'They never taught English through poems and songs (as proposed by the new syllabus). Some of the workshops I have been to on the new areas of study were not particularly useful. It is all about theory and not a lot of practical applications. Local teachers need practical help.'
The large size of classes - a burning issue for overworked teachers in the city - poses additional obstacles. Indeed, textbook prices pale in significance when compared with the various challenges facing the education sector.
'It is a small issue,' says principal Liu. 'There are issues that deserve more attention, such as teachers' workload and the projected decline in student population in the coming years. For middle-class families, what they pay on supplementary exercises for their children far outweighs what they spend on textbooks. Textbook prices are not a serious issue to them, but it is to low-income families.'
Small publishers cannot produce books that meet the needs of the curriculum change Ben Mak, publishers' representative
Digital textbooks can be this much cheaper than the print versions when the market matures, Suen has said, citing a study last year