Monopoly offers a textbook case of greed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 December, 2011, 12:00am


Publishers who have enjoyed a decades-old monopoly on supplying school books have become the latest special interest group to walk all over the government.

Having loudly declared war on the publishers for bundling already over-priced textbooks with mostly useless teaching aids like CD-Roms and study notes, education chief Michael Suen Ming-yeung has withdrawn his demands. The publishers can, after all, 'de-bundle' their wares at their own leisure. Three years is the timeframe promised by the publishers, a throwaway line so it does not look like a complete defeat for the government.

What will happen in three years? Probably more over-priced textbooks with extra add-ons for parents to pay through the nose for and students to carry in back-breaking schoolbags. This is what the monopoly feeds on, and the government's challenge to it has just collapsed.

Suen had insisted that de-bundling start this academic year. The three-year deal is therefore a surrender.

The publishers have, all along, treated the Education Bureau with contempt. Having judged the situation, they simply stuck to their guns, saying it was 'technically' difficult to de-bundle. That was not even an excuse.

These 'bundles' cost thousands of dollars per student, so it's a huge market, and virtually competition-free. As students from low-income families get free or discounted textbooks from the government, the monopoly is at least partly subsidised by the taxpayer.

The handful of publishers who dominate the textbook market can take on the government because most local schools - their real constituencies - either don't care or derive benefits from the existing arrangement.

Subject to guidelines, the schools can decide on what textbooks they use. So long as they sit on the fence, there is no real pressure on the publishers to clean up their act. Meanwhile, students and parents pay the price.