【明報專訊】TEXTBOOK PUBLISHERS are having talks with the Education Bureau (EB) about de-bundling textbooks and teaching materials. They have yet to come to any agreement. However, the day before yesterday, textbook publishers brazenly announced textbooks would on average be 3% to 5% more expensive this year. They have fully exposed their high-handedness and readiness to go back on their word.
Textbook publishers give schools teaching materials and equipment (like electronic whiteboards) but have parents pay for them. In 2008, the government set up a taskforce to deal with this problem. It subsequently demanded that textbooks and teaching materials be priced and sold separately. In May 2010, textbook publishers offered to freeze textbook prices on condition that the government deferred the de-bundling plan for a year. The government accepted the deal. It was agreed last year between textbook publishers and the government that textbooks and teaching materials be separately priced and sold this year. That is a solemn promise they have made society. They have now unilaterally refused to carry it out and even indicated they will raise textbook prices. It is outrageous for them to have broken their word and, taking advantage of their negotiations with the EB, seek to fleece parents even more grievously.
This being the case, the EB has failed to achieve a policy objective it has set itself. It has tried to compel textbook publishers to de-bundle textbooks and teaching materials with a view to lightening parents' financial burdens, but it has failed. We gather that, over the past twelve months, textbook publishers have repeatedly complained that de-bundling involves difficulties and requested that the plan be deferred for another year. In other words, there have been signs that they might renege on their promise. Have officials ever detected them? This is what the SAR government would do well to examine carefully.
It has much to do with textbook publishers' interests to de-bundle textbooks and teaching materials. Like the property market, the textbook market is distorted. There is an oligopoly, and competition is imperfect. Therefore, unless the EB is so determined to cause changes in the textbook market that textbook publishers would act scrupulously, we cannot see what it can possibly do in their talks to bring them to heel.
It is the case in many other places (like the mainland and Japan) that the government controls the publishing of textbooks and provides students with them free of charge. The SAR government, which has full power to approve textbooks, is actually just a step from publishing them. As long as an independent body that has credibility screens textbooks to make sure that they cannot be used for political brainwashing, we do not see why the government should not publish any of them.
Textbook publishers are too jealous of their immediate interests to hesitate to defy the government or set themselves against parents. In our view, the government must not remain weak. It must first make preparations for taking over textbook publishing and then, "drawing the bow without discharging the arrow", demand that textbook publishers change their strategies of doing business. It should give them one or two years to rectify their unfair and unjust pricing arrangements. If they ignore this demand or fail to achieve much, it should take action to protect parents' and students' interests. Unless the government does so, it will not restrain textbook publishers for it to condemn them in speech and in writing.