Education remains one of the most contentious policy areas in Hong Kong for a number of reasons: spoon-fed teaching, rigid curriculums, competitive exams, endless reforms. The escalating row between the government and publishers over textbook prices adds to the long list of problems in our much-criticised education system. Progress was made yesterday but the new administration will have to handle the long-term problem. Both sides act tough in the stand-off. Officials are determined to develop a new electronic book market as a way to punish publishers for their sales tactics. In retaliation, publishers retracted the price lists for the new academic year at the eleventh hour and threatened to raise textbook prices further. It is regrettable that the interest of students and parents appears to have been put aside. Outrage and condemnation aside, they can only watch the saga helplessly.
Publishers have long come under fire for refusing to stop bundling textbooks and teaching aides - a notorious practice under which parents have to shoulder the cost of the teaching materials provided to schools for free. Although publishers have recently bowed to the pressure and started charging for textbooks and teaching materials separately, some textbook prices dropped by a mere 1.4 per cent. With a set of new books still costing up to a few thousand dollars, parents are entitled to wonder why the government had not adopted tougher measures. The row stems from what publishers say is a U-turn by the government to allow schools to get their basic teaching materials for free again. They claimed the materials accounted for 30 to 50 per cent of the overall production costs. But Education Minister Michael Suen Ming-yeung has rightly challenged the price of these materials, which can be two to three times more expensive than students' books.
The complaint lodged to the Ombudsman by publishers is not going to help resolve the deadlock. It is good to see that they have finally decided not to raise textbook prices. However, they insist on charging the schools for the teaching materials. They should think twice whether this is a wise decision. As Suen advised, schools should consider carefully whether the teaching materials are needed. If schools follow calls for a boycott and to reuse old books, it is the publishing industry that suffers. Meanwhile, the government should push ahead with subsidies to help develop a market for electronic textbooks. Belated as this is, it is no doubt the right strategy to counter the distorted printed market. But as experts say, the HK$50 million subsidy fund, to be doled out on a matching-grant basis, is barely sufficient. It remains unclear how many non-profit groups can spend a few million dollars to benefit from the subsidies. More resources are needed to nurture the market and strengthen e-learning in schools.