Two weeks ago, the government failed in its attempt to force publishers to cut the rising cost of school textbooks by separating the sales of textbooks and free teaching materials.
The price list provided by publishers this month for the 2012-13 academic year shows that the cost of some unbundled textbooks has gone up by 4 per cent - almost the same as other textbooks. Schools and parents worry that they will have to pay the additional costs.
Michael Suen Ming-yeung, the Secretary for Education, made a U-turn by lifting the ban and allowing schools to accept some free materials from publishers. He also announced a budget for developing e-textbooks as a solution to break the deadlock in the textbook market. But his inconsistent policy and suggestions have been criticised by teachers.
Free materials - at a cost
Political commentator Albert Cheng King-hon wrote in the South China Morning Post that the main problem is that publishers bundle textbooks with additional teaching materials that are provided to schools.
Publishers add the cost of producing those optional teaching aids (provided free to teachers and schools) to the cost of textbooks sold to students. As a result, parents are forced to subsidise teaching tools.
Take English as an example. The two major textbook publishers for this subject are Longman and Oxford University Press. Both publishers have been producing and giving free materials to schools, such as a teacher's edition with teaching instructions and model answers, an e-textbook with audio files, topical powerpoint presentations, and a test bank with practice questions. The free materials are used as sales tactics to keep and encourage customers to buy from that publisher every year.
However, a source, who has worked in the local publishing industry for many years, says there is a good reason to produce free materials. 'Teachers tell us they want them and that they can get the same things from other publishers. We won't complain because they're our customers.'
Maria Ng Mui-yee, English panel chairperson at Carmel Secondary School, says her team will not purchase materials from a publisher based on free materials. She also has doubts about the usefulness of some of them.
'The audio CD-ROM for listening is useful and some teachers also find the test banks with question items helpful. But the e-book is merely a digitalised version of the textbook itself and it's of no use at all. I haven't used those for more than three years,' Ng says.
As for Suen's solution to cut textbook prices by unbundling the pack, many don't believe it will work. 'In the end, it is still the publishers that will set the price of the unbundled items,' says Terence Poon Man-yiu, vice principal and Liberal Studies teacher at De La Salle Secondary School in Sheung Shui.
A lack of competition
Both Ng and Poon believe the continuing argument over the increasing prices of textbooks is because the market - worth more than HK$1million per year - is dominated by only a handful of publishers.
'The problem is definitely textbook publishers monopolising the market. The textbook market is big business as there is a constant demand for textbooks,' Ng says. 'Only when there are competitors to the publishers can people have a say in the textbook prices. I think the government should hire qualified people, including retired experienced teachers, to design teaching materials.'
Her idea was echoed by Joseph Wong Wing-ping, former secretary for education and manpower, who thinks the government should also introduce more competitors through public tender.
Yet the same publishing industry source is doubtful about the proposal. 'In an ideal world, teachers would produce their own materials. But in reality, we know they can't, owing to a heavy workload and the fact some aren't trained in [teaching] English. We're just filling the gap in the market and helping teachers do their jobs,' the source says.
Are e-textbooks the answer?
To break the dominance of a few publishers in the market, Suen has announced a HK$50 million subsidy to help not-for-profit publishers develop electronic textbooks - a long time after the government stated its intention in the 2008 policy address.
Yet educators think Suen is missing the point again. 'It's just going from one monopoly to another,' Poon says. 'Producing e-materials is not cheap. You need money to purchase copyrights of photos and videos. Eventually the e-textbook market will be taken over by the publishers.'
Ng adds: 'Electronic devices are expensive and their lifespan is short. It's costly to maintain and repair the devices. I also doubt whether teachers [are ready] to use e-textbooks.'
Others are concerned for underprivileged children. 'In Sham Shui Po, not every family can afford a computer and teach children how to use it at home,' says Chin Kin-wing, vice-chairman of the Federation of Parent-Teacher Associations in the Kowloon district.
No long-term policy
'How long will this initiative last?' asks Poon. 'The government keeps introducing new education policies. It will be difficult for schools to start implementing things only to find the policy is changed afterwards. Long-term commitment from the government is essential for any sustainable development.'
The government asks publishers to separate the sales of textbooks and teaching materials, effective from 2010. But the plan faces strong objections from publishers and is delayed.
Publishers agree to unbundle the sales of textbooks and teaching materials for English, Chinese and mathematics for three years, while the government bans schools from receiving free materials from publishers.
May 7, 2012
Michael Suen Ming-yeung, Secretary for Education, makes a U-turn, allowing schools to receive free teachers' manuals from publishers - but not CDs or practice questions - after publishers complete a pricing exercise that makes teachers' manuals two to three times more expensive than students' books.
May 8, 2012
The Education Bureau postpones the release of its annual list of recommended textbooks after publishers withdraw their book prices at the last minute, as a protest against the government's change of policy.
May 11, 2012
The price list of textbooks for 2012-13 is released by publishers, showing that 30 per cent of the textbooks are priced 2 per cent higher on average, while some go up in price by 4 per cent.
'The Hong Kong textbook market is monopolised by a few publishing firms who arbitrarily set unreasonable prices. Providing free ... teaching materials to schools should never be a reason for charging [parents] high amounts [for textbooks]. If that is the case, I strongly recommend, as suggested by the government, the 'user pays' principle, under which schools can purchase learning materials they deem useful and need not squander resources.'
James Au Kin-pong, a reader living in Lai Chi Kok
'I have always had doubts. [Unbundling textbooks and freebies] is just like shampoo and conditioner being priced separately. Will they get cheaper?'
Joseph Wong Wing-ping, former secretary for education and manpower
'When [the government has] HK$500 million to introduce the national education subject, why can't it spend some money to help teachers buy textbooks?'
Chow Ping-yan, Education Convergence, a concern group
'The HK$50 million was just a drop in a bucket [a tiny amount]. Developing electronic textbooks requires a lot of manpower to rewrite the current curriculum to fit the local syllabus.'
Erwin Huang, chief executive of WebOrganic, which provides subsidised computing devices to underprivileged students