Textbook answer a long time coming
Is there nothing straightforward about Hong Kong's education system? Publishers promised last year to unbundle expensive optional supplementary teaching materials from school textbooks in 12 months, but still they have barely complied. So Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung has given them an ultimatum, saying that if they do not do as they have been told within a year, the government will send out tenders so that rival versions can be produced. It is good that he is talking tough; pity that he has failed to deliver on pledges.
The arrangement between the Education Bureau, schools and textbook publishers is an odd one. Book prices include the cost of teaching materials which parents have to pay for, but do not see: they are provided 'free' to schools instead. It is up to teachers whether they use the CD roms, study notes and guides and the like. Many choose not to. Parents obviously disagree with such a deal. An education working group sided with them, recommending unbundling and the paying of a separate price for each. Authorities got a promise from the publishers and rightly believed that they would comply. Instead, just eight per cent of books for the next academic year have been unbundled, and publishers are saying that a year is impossible and three is more practical as complicated royalties would need to be renegotiated.
Publishers have for too long had the sweetest of deals. They have been far too regularly updating books, forcing parents to buy latest editions that have the most minor of changes - and in the process, killing off the possibility of a second-hand trade. There has long been talk of producing more flexible and cheaper electronic versions, but there has been little to show for all the discussion. Too many parents cannot afford such behaviour, nor should they have to.
There is obviously not enough time left before the next school year to make the change. Another deadline has been set, but this time there can be no more delaying or arguing. E-learning is the future and it has to be the goal. In the meantime, the government has to ensure publishers do as they are told and, if not, make good with its threat.