The textbook cost dilemma
Even where education is free and universal, the acquisition of knowledge still bears a hefty price tag.
A full set of new school textbooks will cost about HK$2,000 for a primary pupil and much more than HK$3,000 for a secondary student. At those prices, even a middle-class family will feel the strain.
The Consumer Council has found that the price of secondary school textbooks has risen by an average of 7.4 per cent in the past year, the highest rise in 10 years, compared with a 3.4 per cent increase in the Consumer Price Index.
The average price increase for primary school textbooks was a hefty 6.6 per cent.
Every year since 1992, with just a couple of exceptions, textbook prices in Hong Kong have risen out of step with inflation.
'Parents are quite helpless,' said Raymond Jao Ming, vice-chairman of the Eastern District Parent Teacher Association, 'Measures should be introduced to keep textbook prices low.'
He suggests costs could be lowered by avoiding high-quality coated paper and full-colour illustrations.
A spokeswoman for the Education Bureau said it 'advised publishers to adopt printing methods with low-cost features as recommended in the Guidelines for Printing Textbooks'. According to the guidelines, lightweight, thin paper and lower-cost material, such as wood-free paper, should be used and printing should be single-colour.
However, a textbook publisher claims the guidelines are not practical.
'Coated paper is now cheaper than wood-free paper [and] most printers print in four colours, even if you specify black-and-white quality,' said Shek Kwok-kei of Pilot Publishing.
Many parents object to publishers releasing new editions or reprints frequently so that students are not able to use second-hand textbooks and cannot pass on used books to their siblings, but Mr Shek said: 'The Education Bureau simply does not approve such frequent revisions.'
The bureau requires that no new editions be released within three years once the textbook has been included in its Recommended Textbook List.
'Curricula are amended on a subject-by-subject and level-by-level basis over a span of several years,' Mr Shek said. 'Textbooks are revised when new curricula are announced. New versions of textbooks enter the market each year, but there is no question of a new edition being released for a textbook every year.'
But he did not mention that the Education Bureau allows publishers to issue reprints in between editions.
'For each reprint, textbook publishers reshuffle the contents and illustrations, and that makes it inconvenient for students to use older editions,' said Wong Po-choi, chairman of the Committee on Home-School Co-operation. 'In the end, students have to buy new books rather than relying on a used version.'
One secondary school principal explained that printing costs were less significant than the cost of supplementary teaching and learning materials such as teacher's manuals, revision guides and language tapes, which are bundled with the textbooks.
Mervyn Cheung Man-ping, chairman of the Education Policy Concern Group, revealed that some publishers even went as far as offering free examination papers and offering to mark students' assignments as a package. The Education Bureau's guidelines to publishers to separate production costs of other resources from textbooks were largely ignored, with the costs ultimately borne by parents.
'Many publishers spend a lot of money in promotional activities, the cost of which is absorbed in the textbook production cost. This practice is becoming prevalent,' said Mr Cheung, who recalled a case in which a publisher gave free dictionaries to teachers.
Professor Wong said: 'Promotion and marketing costs account for as much as 30 per cent of the textbook cost.'
In vetting for the Recommended Textbook List, the Education Bureau admits that pricing is not one of the criteria.
'It is inappropriate for the government to interfere with publishers' commercial decisions under our free-market policy,' a bureau spokeswoman said.
The bureau appears to adopt the opposite stance, however, when it advises schools to take price into account when selecting textbooks to 'avoid undue financial burden on parents'.
Mr Jao said: 'Parents are only free to choose where to buy the textbooks; they are not free to choose which textbooks to buy, as the choice is made by teachers.'
He pointed out that although some parent-teacher associations participated in the textbook selection process, parents usually deferred to teachers' professional judgment.
The government is not deaf to parents' financial predicament. Every year, the Student Financial Assistance Agency provides aid under the school textbook assistance scheme to needy students who have passed a means test.
In the 2007-08 school year, of the 868,000 primary and secondary students in Hong Kong, about 308,000 received a total of HK$446.9 million in grants, about 80 per cent of which was for textbooks.
Another 128,000 students from families receiving Comprehensive Social Security Assistance were given HK$389.7 million in a flat-rate grant for meeting school-related expenses that covers textbooks.
In July, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen pledged a one-off grant of HK$550 million to help 550,000 needy students.
Taken together, more than half of the student population is benefiting from a public subsidy one way or the other.
One may ask why the government spends so much in financial assistance that almost exclusively benefits textbook publishers. However, they insist that textbook publishing is not as lucrative as the public tends to think.
'The textbook business involves high investment and high risk,' Mr Shek said.
He noted that to produce a Chinese-language textbook, about 10 to 15 editors, six graphic designers and five information-technology personnel were employed.
'The development time takes at least two years, involving investment in the order of HK$10 million on staff costs alone. The investment will [be wasted] if the textbook does not pass the Education Bureau's vetting process,' he said, adding it was not uncommon.
'A couple of years ago, eight publishers submitted draft music textbooks for vetting, and not one was approved. One publisher went bust as a result,' he said. 'The break-even period is long, and there is no guarantee that sufficient volumes will be sold.
'Publishers must produce both English and Chinese versions for a textbook, even if one of the versions will not sell at all.'
With so much money being put into helping students buy textbooks, and the business apparently precarious, the question arises whether textbooks are dispensable. Perhaps teachers should assume a stronger role in developing their own teaching materials.
The Education Bureau's position is that textbooks are one of the many learning and teaching resources. However, many educators agree that they remain essential in classroom teaching.
It is government policy to promote school-based curriculum development. However, William Lee Siu-hok, chairman of the Hong Kong Primary Education Research Association, said teachers had neither the time nor professional support to prepare teaching materials.
The textbook problem has attracted the attention of Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung, who promised in July to form a working group to find solutions.
Mr Cheung and Professor Wong agreed that the working group should consider, as a long-term option, using government resources to fund third parties such as tertiary educational institutions to develop education materials, which would help reduce the reliance on textbooks.