Education chiefs have lost their battle to bring about a speedy end to publishers' practice of bundling the sale of textbooks with other learning materials.
In a major blow to Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung, the Education Bureau is to let publishers debundle textbooks from other materials in phases. The practice has pushed up textbook prices, angering parents.
Suen, who had insisted that debundling must happen in this academic year, refused to say whether it was a defeat.
He added that the government was determined to end the practice in an industry dominated by a few key publishers.
Officials have been trying to stop teaching aids such as CD-Roms, study notes and guides - not all used by students - being sold as part of a package along with textbooks.
Suen has described the textbook industry as a distorted monopoly. However, publishers have insisted it will take three years for them to end bundling.
Suen said yesterday that if the competition law came into place, the government would be better empowered to investigate whether price control practices existed in the industry.
He said the bureau had adopted recommendations made by a government task force set up in June - including the development of digital textbooks and a fairer textbook recommendation list for consumers - to ensure that major publishers could not distort textbook prices again.
'We are just looking at the same goal now. The goal has not changed. But sometimes you don't always take a taxi to get to somewhere, you can take a minibus or a bus,' he said.
The bureau has also dropped the idea of launching a public tender to publish textbooks - an ultimatum it made to publishers. Suen said yesterday that a centralised public tender on textbooks would affect Hong Kong's reputation as a free economy. Instead, officials would provide financial incentives to new players to boost competition, the government said.
Connie Lau Yin-hing, chief executive of the Consumer Council, said: 'It will be easier for other publishers to enter the e-textbook market because the production costs are lower than for print textbooks.'
Suen said: 'E-textbooks are more flexible because they can be updated without having to reprint, and they can appeal to different stages of learning, and they cut down on costs for the consumer.'
However, Raymond Jao Ming, a member of the task force and chairman of the Federation of Parent-Teacher Associations of Hong Kong Eastern District, said: 'What parents want is very simple: for the price of textbooks to be reduced to a reasonable level.'
The authorities will implement a more stringent review of traditional paper textbooks recommended to improve customer choice through a system where reviewers will judge books without knowing the publishers or writers.
A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Educational Publishers Association and the Anglo-Chinese Textbook Publishers Organisation said they welcomed the bureau's policies promoting digital learning and a more stringent textbook review system.