Price of self-interest

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 April, 2011, 12:00am


Local textbook publishers seem to have followed the bad example of private hospitals by putting profits ahead of the public interest. Private hospitals refused to introduce a quota to limit the number of pregnant mainland women giving birth in Hong Kong and give priority to local mothers. Now, textbook publishers, who have long monopolised the market, have raised prices by 3 to 5 per cent, disregarding a deal that the government said it had reached with publishers that would bring prices down.

Textbooks in Hong Kong are expensive. Prices have been rising regularly over the past 10 years: even in 2001 when Hong Kong faced deflation, textbook prices went up.

This perverse situation is allowed to exist mainly because the Education Bureau has failed in its duty to act as gatekeeper to regulate the market. In the past, some officials even abused their power for private gain by colluding with publishers. Since the inception of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, monitoring systems have been strictly enforced to eliminate such corrupt practices.

Unfortunately, a number of the well-established textbook publishers already control a big segment of the market. And the government's belief in the power of the market sets the stage for these publishers to do whatever they want. Our total reliance on local publishers to supply textbooks and teaching materials has also given them an unfair advantage.

Publishers produce revised editions of the textbooks every year, thus discouraging students from buying second-hand books.

With the new trend of using e-textbooks, publishers have also started to provide expensive e-learning teaching resources such as electronic whiteboards to schools. The cost burden of these expensive materials will no doubt be transferred to parents.

On average, parents spend at least HK$4,000 to HK$5,000 on school books at the beginning of each school year, imposing a great financial burden on the family.

The Education Bureau set up a working group led by Undersecretary for Education Kenneth Chen Wei-on to look into the issue. As a result, the bureau and two associations representing publishers agreed to separate the sale of textbooks and teaching materials, which were previously sold together, in the hope of lowering prices. And last year, publishers also agreed to freeze textbook prices for a year.

But now, publishers have raised prices while the deal to separate the textbooks and teaching materials has got nowhere. It was revealed that textbook publishers had demanded the government subsidise the sale of the teaching materials - for every dollar of discount they give, the publishers want the government to give a rebate of the same amount to schools to buy teaching materials.

Chen said the government could not provide such funding. But he also did not come up with a solution to the problem, and only stressed that schools are prohibited from accepting benefits from textbook publishers such as free teaching materials. He said the government encourages schools to produce their own materials.

The most effective way to break the price-hike cycle is to break up the monopoly of publishers by scrapping the use of textbooks produced by local publishers. Our international schools and the English Schools Foundation already follow the overseas practice of providing textbooks to students. Why don't the other local schools do the same?

The business volume of producing learning and teaching materials for primary and secondary schools amounts to HK$1.5 billion per year. It is not huge, but it's still a profitable business.

Scrapping the retail of local textbooks will have a limited financial impact on the publishing industry, but will certainly alleviate the financial burden of hundreds of thousands of parents. It's time to break the publishing cartel, lessen the load on students and parents, and shelve old practice by allowing schools to devise their own learning and teaching materials.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator