LCQ6: Textbook market

     Following is a question by the Hon Cheung Hok-ming and a reply by the Secretary for Education, Mr Michael Suen, in the Legislative Council today (May 23):


     The high textbook prices in Hong Kong keep on rising every year, and some parents have indicated that this imposes additional financial burden on them, and therefore, they have all along hoped that the Government will strive with textbook publishers to implement the "debundling of textbooks from learning and teaching materials for pricing", so as to bring down textbook prices.  However, they have indicated that according to the newly released Recommended Textbook List, 60% of the textbooks are not debundled for pricing, and the average increase of the textbook prices is 4%; and for those textbooks which are debundled for pricing, the drop in their prices is limited, making them feel very angry and disappointed that the Education Bureau (EDB) has been negotiating with the textbook publishers on textbook pricing for years but no progress has been made.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) given that EDB has considered publishing textbooks through central tendering, whether the Government has shelved the plan; if so, given that the strategy of debundling for pricing has failed to effectively bring down textbook prices, whether the Government will consider afresh adopting the plan, with a view to providing parents with an additional choice;

(b) given that EDB plans to develop the electronic textbook (e-textbook) market, with a view to introducing competition and increasing the choices of textbooks available to parents and schools, whether the Government has estimated, upon the launching of e-textbooks in 2014, the savings that may be brought to parents, as well as the percentage of downward adjustment in textbook prices that may be brought about; and

(c) whether the Government will consider subsidising all parents in Hong Kong in buying textbooks to alleviate their burden?



(a) The EDB set up the Task Force to Review Learning and Teaching Materials (hereafter "the Task Force") last year to review and examine issues related to textbook provision, including the possibility of central tendering. However, in the conventional printed textbook market, large commercial publishers have an edge in both manpower and resources. Hence, the introduction of new competitors is a challenge under the principles of a free market. The Government's direct involvement in the development of textbooks is also considered infeasible as it will cause heated debates in the social and education sectors. At present, schools select their textbooks with reference to the Recommended Textbook List (RTL) issued by the EDB as the textbooks on the list have been vetted by the EDB and their quality is assured. Having adopted their textbooks for years, schools are unlikely to switch to those of other publishers. Unless the Government makes it mandatory that schools have to use the new textbooks that succeed in any tendering exercise, the current issue faced by the textbook market is yet to be solved.

     To rectify the distortion in the textbook market, we accepted the recommendation of the Task Force towards the end of last year on developing e-textbooks that can be independently used for learning and teaching. Apart from keeping abreast of international trends by introducing the more flexible and interactive electronic mode of learning and teaching, e-textbooks provide an option in addition to printed textbooks and bring about healthy competition. More importantly, the development of e-textbooks allows the Government to play a leading role and reset market rules. Not only will the Government be able to monitor textbook quality, but the sales and pricing strategies of publishers will also be under reasonable supervision.

     To ensure the sustainable development of e-textbooks in the market in a long run, we need to establish a quality assurance mechanism. At present, most schools refer to the RTL issued by the EDB when selecting printed textbooks as the list guarantees quality. Publishers are also concerned about whether their textbooks can be included in the RTL. In the future, we are going to draw up a Recommended Textbook List applicable to e-textbooks (e-RTL) based on the experience and feedback from the E-Textbook Market Development Scheme. In addition to textbook quality, pricing and sales strategies will also be included as vetting criteria. It is believed that schools will make reference to the list for e-textbook selection.

     We are going to apply for a $50 million funding from the Legislative Council to provide a seeding grant to non-profit making organisations on a 50:50 matching basis. The grant is subject to a financial cap of around $4 million per e-textbook set or 50% of the development cost of the e-textbook set concerned, whichever is less. We also welcome other commercial organisations to join the Scheme. They can apply for the Small and Medium Enterprises Loan Guarantee Scheme if necessary.

(b) We have commissioned a consultancy study recently and found out that the average cost of developing e-textbooks is 20% lower than that of the printed textbooks. If an e-textbook set is used by 30% of the schools in Hong Kong, its production cost is at most 50% lower than that of the printed versions. Therefore, we believe that if the e-textbook market is successfully developed, textbooks of good quality and reasonable price could be available for use by the education sector.

(c) The Government's policy on student finance is to ensure that no student is deprived of education due to lack of means.  Nonetheless, based on the principle of financial prudence, we have no intention to subsidise all parents in Hong Kong (including those without any financial burden) in buying textbooks.  For families with financial difficulties, if the students are coming from families in receipt of the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA), they can apply for a flat-rate grant for school-related expenses under the Scheme.  Other families with financial difficulties may apply to the Student Financial Assistance Agency (SFAA) for textbook assistance through the ˇ§School Textbook Assistance Schemeˇ¨, which provides primary and secondary students in need with assistance for purchase of textbooks.  According to SFAA's statistics, the cumulative amount of assistance disbursed through the "School Textbook Assistance Scheme" in 2011/12 is close to $656 million.  Around 280 000 primary and secondary students have benefited from the Scheme, 57% of whom receive full grant, while the remaining receive half grant.  About 37% of all primary and secondary students can benefit from the Scheme.

Ends/Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Issued at HKT 14:20