Textbooks row opens the door for e-learning
Public education in Hong Kong is free, but not necessarily equal. The reality is that while some parents can afford to pay for extra-curricular activities such as tutoring and music lessons, poorer families can find it a struggle just to meet the cost of uniforms and textbooks. They can ill-afford to be made to pay for something they may not need. Indeed, no parent should have to. For years, however, that is what has been happening under an arrangement between the Education Bureau, schools and textbook publishers. The price of textbooks includes the cost of teaching materials which parents pay for but never see, and which are supplied 'free' to schools. The trouble is that teachers can please themselves whether they use them - and many do not.
'Unbundling' books and learning materials so that they are priced and sold separately seems a sensible measure to take. It was recommended two years ago by a working group that reviewed the development of e-learning and the government thought it had a deal with the 20 major publishers. Like many simple-sounding solutions, however, it was too good to be true. The publishers now say it is virtually impossible to separate existing books from teaching materials without complicated renegotiation of royalties. They have agreed to unbundle only new textbooks, which account for 5 per cent of the total, and asked the government to put up HK$150 million for learning materials teachers may not use.
The bureau has dismissed the publishers' demand, but with less than six months before the start of the next school year, it is clear someone will have to pay the price. It should not be parents who struggle to find the cost of books and uniforms. One mother has told a radio programme that textbooks for her three children cost HK$12,000 - a monthly income for some families.
Ultimately, the solution may lie in the development of e-learning. Hong Kong has adopted a cautious approach that tends to serve the interests of one stakeholder - the publishers. Other places have adopted e-learning to keep material fresh and relevant and make education more equally accessible.