Education chief loses credibility

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 December, 2011, 12:00am


The education chief's U-turn on his pledge to fight the monopoly on textbook publishing has once again let down parents and students. Six months ago, Michael Suen Ming-yeung appeared to be determined to get it right. In an unequivocal warning to publishers, he pledged to put out tenders for the work if they refused to debundle expensive optional supplementary teaching materials from school textbooks. Hopes were high that the distorted market was due for a change and textbooks would become cheaper.

Unfortunately, the ultimatum has turned out to be an empty threat. Instead of making good on the promise, Suen last week announced that the government would focus on developing electronic textbooks, along with higher transparency for textbook prices. He argued that the move would achieve the same goal, but he shied away from explaining why open tender was not pursued.

This is not the first time Suen has caved in to publishers. Despite repeated pressure from the government, the industry is still resisting attempts to separate teaching aids like CD-Roms and study guides, which are not used by students but bundled as an expensive package, from books. The benefits of electronic textbooks are evident. However, as long as their use is not made compulsory, it remains unclear if the market will be big enough to bring in competition. More effort is needed to turn the use of e-books from a supplementary arrangement into the mainstream.

It is disappointing that the government cannot even stand tall when dealing with publishers. What should be a simple solution turns out to be too difficult for officials to handle. The minister still owes parents and students an explanation as to why the tendering option has not been pursued. It was surprising to hear Suen say on a radio programme that what he had said was merely a threat. If officials do not mean what they say, it raises doubts about whether their commitments should be taken seriously. The government's credibility and authority is at stake.