Textbook publishers need to be monitored by bureau

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 May, 2009, 12:00am

The recent controversy about the steep rise in textbook prices concerns parents a lot. As a father of two school-age children, I pay around HK$4,000 for their textbooks every year.

Textbooks are different from other consumer items in that parents do not have a choice over which items to buy. We are obliged to buy whatever is listed on the book list compiled by our children's schools. If the school chooses an expensive book over a cheaper one, we have no choice but to buy it.

Many parents tend to blame publishers for the skyrocketing costs of textbooks. Instead of acting with a social conscience, publishers include many gratuitous items in their textbook packages which push up the cost. Those items, like CDs and extended worksheets, are always left untouched at the end of the academic year. The inclusion of them in a textbook is just an excuse to charge more.

While parents from the Central and Western district usually come from affluent backgrounds, most still find the soaring textbook costs place a financial burden on them. Some use second-hand books to lessen the financial pressure.

One thing publishers can do is to stop using glossy paper that reflects light. Not only is it expensive, it is also inconvient to students who often complain that the light reflected off the pages distracts them from reading. Instead of churning out gratuitous CDs, they should consider uploading the information on to a website, which teachers and students can use at their own discretion.

They should also do away with luxurious promotion practices like holding banquets for teachers or giving other special treatments for schools. According to what other parent representatives have told me, schools are also to blame for the exorbitant price of textbooks. Some schools require publishers to donate books to their libraries as a condition for choosing them over other publishers.

The practice is just like an infamous case uncovered by the media where schools asked food caterers to help them install fans in the canteens as a condition for choosing their services.

While the situation has improved a lot following a barrage of negative publicity in the media, I don't rule out the possibility that there are still schools that try to extract special treatment from publishers, which in turn pushes up publishers' production costs.

Some people think schools should take parents' financial burden into account when compiling the textbook list. I don't agree. Schools should have total power in textbook choice as they have the professional judgment to make the best decision.

But there are things schools can do. For example, they can help parents differentiate between necessary books and unnecessary items like dictionaries by marking them differently on the book list.

In the controversy over the steep rise in textbook prices, a sparring match has broken out between the publishing industry and the Education Bureau. While the bureau criticises the publishers for setting exorbitant prices, the publishing industry blames the education officials for making frequent changes to the curriculum.

I think that the responsibility lies more with publishers. However, instead of letting market forces regulate the publishing industry, the bureau has the responsibility to monitor the industry and do more to stop the cost of textbooks from spiralling out of control.

Leung Tin-ho is president of the Federation of Parent and Teacher Associations of the Central and Western District. Mr Leung has two children studying in a government subsidised primary school and direct subsidy scheme secondary school in the Central and Western district. He was talking to Elaine Yau.