Turn over a new leaf in the textbook trade

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2006, 12:00am

The local market for primary- and secondary-school textbooks is estimated to be worth around $1.1 billion. May and June are the crucial months when schools choose their textbooks for the coming school year. So publishers work hard, at this critical time, to ensure that their textbooks are chosen.

Their marketing strategies apparently involve giving expensive gifts and services, such as helping teachers mark their pupils' assignments and offering model examination exercises to drill students.

The Education and Manpower Bureau has already sent letters to schools saying they should reject such gifts and services, and has condemned the publishers concerned for their unethical conduct. These marketing strategies raise two major issues: how can school authorities be made to resist these temptations; and how can the burden on parents, of purchasing textbooks for their children, be eased?

One way to ease the costs for parents, especially those who are less well-off, would be for civic groups and schools to organise the sale of senior pupils' old textbooks to younger students.

Education authorities should avoid frequent minor changes in the syllabuses of school subjects, to avoid giving publishers an excuse to produce new editions every year.

Teachers should be more tolerant about the use of old textbooks, too.

In many cases, the so-called new editions involve only a few revisions: students using old textbooks could look at classmates' newer versions when necessary.

When publishers spend large sums on gifts to schools, principals and teachers, the cost is ultimately transferred to textbook prices. School authorities, and the teachers responsible for the choice of textbooks, should seriously consider the financial burden on parents.

Some teachers admit that without these 'gifts', the chances of a certain publisher's textbooks being chosen would be limited.

Education and Manpower Bureau officials say they have released clear guidelines against accepting gifts in any form from publishers, to avoid improper influences in the choice of textbooks. Schools must always accord top priority to students' interests, and the most important considerations are good quality as well as low prices.

Yet, publishers persist in sending gifts to schools and teachers, and so far no action has been taken. The Independent Commission Against Corruption should consider investigating the matter.

In addition, Parent-Teacher Associations, if involved in the choice of textbooks, could help make the process more transparent. Encouraging parents to give their views on textbook choices would also strengthen communications with school authorities.

According to newspaper reports, textbook publishers have hired at least six past presidents and members of the Hong Kong Aided Primary School Heads Association - as well as the Union of Heads of Aided Primary Schools Association.

This has angered other publishers, who suggested that retired school principals should go through a 'cooling-off' period immediately after retirement, following the civil service model, to avoid unfair competition.

The Education and Manpower Bureau and the ICAC must act on the issue. They could recommend the proper mechanisms to prevent suspicions that school principals collude with certain publishers in order to get lucrative jobs after retirement.

School authorities must consider parents' financial burdens, and work to keep their trust in schools.

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek is a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong