With schools going back next week, the educational textbook market is still in disarray owing to a new ministry decision, writes Ahmed Abu Ghazala
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Al-Faggala district, where office equipment stores and publishing houses are located, used to be very crowded before the start of the academic year. Nowadays, however, many stores are closed due to the ban on publishing private schoolbooks and business is slow. Even office equipment sellers are suffering from the low number of customers.
For years, students at Egyptian schools have relied not just on their official school books, but also on the mainly extracurricular books published by private publishing houses. Although the content of the official and the privately published books should be the same, students and their parents seem to have an inexhaustible appetite for the privately produced books. The later are differently organised, and they are better designed and have additional exercises. Famous book series have names that indicate their role for students, such as Selah Al-Telmeez (the student's weapon) and Al-Muallim (the teacher).
However, while this public-private division of labour has worked well over recent decades, it seems that its days may now be numbered.
The Al-Faggala district of Cairo near Ramses Square is the area where most of the country's bookstores, office equipment stores and publishing houses are located. It is usually crowded at the start of the academic year in September because of people buying books and stationery for their studies. However, the scene has been different this year, with some shops closed and there being few buyers. The market for privately produced educational books has been placed on hold, and no new books are to be published this year following differences between the Ministry of Education and the publishers.
The change started with the appointment of Ahmed Zaki Badr as minister of education. Well known for his strong views, since taking office Badr has taken many decisions that he believes are necessary to develop the country's educational system, even as these have stirred controversy in media.
Badr reassigned some 120 ministry officials in the different governorates, and he followed this by conducting surprise visits to various state schools, sanctioning non-performing teachers or headteachers. Badr has also decided to address the issue of privately produced schoolbooks. Ministry of education Decree 52 amends the rules for licensing private-sector books, leaving the question of fees to the ministry's own committee on academic books and publications.
This is not the first time that the Education Ministry has intervened to regulate the private-sector educational books industry. In 1988, Ahmed Fathi Sorour, now speaker of the People's Assembly, the lower house of the Egyptian parliament and at the time minister of education, decided to prohibit the distribution of private-sector schoolbooks unless they were licensed by a committee at the ministry in order to ensure their quality.
The decision was made by agreement with representatives of the private-sector publishing industry, who met with Sorour in May 1988. Fees for certification were set at LE400 per subject per year. At the same time, Sorour stressed the importance of the private-public partnership between the publishers and the ministry, revealing that the ministry might abandon its official publishing programme to reduce costs and focus on developing the curricula instead. Licensing fees for private-sector books were raised to LE600-900 per subject per year by Decree 19 in 2003.
However, today, according to Mohamed Abdel-Meguid, manager of Al-Moasasa Al-Arabiya Al-Haditha (The Modern Arab Foundation), which publishes well-known books like Selah Al-Telmeez and Al-Muallim, licensing fees have again risen dramatically in recent months. The foundation was informed in June that fees would go up to LE1,000 per book, meaning that fees per subject could reach LE4,000-5,000 in a given year. Each semester of instruction uses a separate book, together with additional revision and exercise books.
In earlier statements, Badr said that the ministry has to pay the committees in charge of examining and licensing schoolbooks over LE1 million a year, since each title is checked by three or four specialists. The ministry's budget was supposed to be used to benefit students, he said, rather than private-sector publishers, and these costs would have to be passed on to the publishers.
Over 1,000 titles have been submitted to the ministry for licensing this year, of which the ministry has rejected 141. However, because of the dispute between the publishers and the ministry over licensing fees, Badr has said that no private- sector textbook has been licensed this year, and any books found on the market are officially uncertified.
However, the dispute is not only about fees. According to Abdel-Meguid, the publishers have accepted the ministry's new fee structure, and as a result, he said, they had been informed that new titles would be examined by the ministry in July. However, problems did not end there, because of a further decision taken by Badr.
In July, the Ministry of Education also informed publishers that from now on they would be required to pay for the right to use the ministry's intellectual property in privately produced textbooks. Such rights could cost anywhere between LE200,000 and LE2 million according to subject. According to Badr, the content of educational textbooks belongs to the ministry of education, and publishers should pay for the right to use it.
It is really this decision which has caused the present crisis with the country's publishers. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Abdel-Meguid said the intellectual property rights now being demanded by the ministry led to exaggerated fees. Very often, he said, the books rely on material published some time ago, and much of it is in the public domain anyway.
Publishers had been left with few options, he said. "We can't pay the fees and then pass on the costs to the consumer, since buyers would then simply buy one copy of each title and photocopy it. Books are expensive as they are, and this will only add to the costs." In an attempt at compromise, he said, the publishers had offered the ministry 2.5 per cent of aggregate sales, but the ministry had refused the offer.
According to Mohamed Hassan, owner of a Gaza bookstore and publisher of an English-language textbook, the ministry does not have the intellectual property rights to the books he sells. "They don't create the books. The books use material that is either in the public domain or that belongs to no one, such as scientific facts or grammatical rules. The ministry is not the creator of this material. At best, it is its producer."
"I want to ask Ahmed Zaki Badr, the minister of education, one question: didn't you study from Selah Al-Telmeez when you were a student? Why are you doing this to today's students," Hassan asked.
Moreover, Abdel-Meguid said, this year the country's publishing houses were only seeking to renew existing certification rather than acquire new licences. "We have been using the ministry's curricula for a long time," he said. Why had it become so sensitive about its intellectual property rights now?
According to Adel Shokri, a Ministry of Education consultant, the ministry had decided to "activate" its intellectual property rights, since it paid for the material produced by the books' authors. Earnings from the new licensing system would be used for developing educational curricula, printing books, and improving their quality, he said.
The ministry had the right to be compensated for the use of its intellectual property, since Law 82/2002 states that the ministry is the sole owner of the material and that the right to use the material has been acquired by the ministry, he said. According to Badr, the value of the licences has been carefully calculated; any publisher that does not accept the new system should not be in the field of educational textbook publishing.
The value of the rights was assessed according to research into the market for particular titles, Shokri said. "Prices change according to the number of students, the educational level, and the geographical area." One publishing house that publishes 100 titles makes around LE1 billion in sales, he said. "In this light, the ministry's request for the return of LE40 million in rights is a reasonable demand."
Speaking for the publishers, Abdel-Meguid said that Shokri's figures were inaccurate, since publishers have low profit margins, with up to two thirds of production either given as gifts to teachers or returned unsold. The Modern Arab Foundation publishes 76 titles on different subjects at various levels of school education, but only 15 of these were profitable, he said. Forty companies compete with each other in the educational books market, and it would be inaccurate to assess the value of the market according to student numbers, since these are divided among many firms.
Yet, during the thus far unproductive negotiations that have taken place over the issue between ministry officials and the publishers, it appeared that each side had different figures. While the ministry claims that 60 per cent of students buy private-sector textbooks, the publishers assert that the true figure is closer to 20 per cent.
With school starting next week, students and their parents or guardians have thus far kept out of the debate, knowing that they have few alternatives. According to Hisham Nasr, a first- year secondary student at the Talaea Al-Islamiya (Islamic Vanguard) school in Cairo, while he used to use the ministry's official books, this year he wanted to use private-sector books to improve his marks.
"The private books have more explanation, discussion and exercises. For example, if the official book provides the definition of ten words from a poem, the private sector book will provide the definition of 30," Nasr said.
The best solution, he said, would be to prohibit all use of private-sector books in order to achieve fair competition among students. "If everyone studies from the ministry's official books, everyone has the same opportunity. Why do we give poorer students, who can't afford to buy the private books, less chance than richer ones who can," he asked.
Khaled Eissa, the father of three boys at different levels of education, said that the private-sector books were important until the start of the general secondary grade. When students enter the second and third secondary grades, which determine eligibility for different universities, private lessons are essential, he said.
In earlier stages of education, the private-sector books help pupils achieve better marks and help their parents to help their children. If there are no private-sector books available this year, he will not mind, he said, so long as this is true for all.
Mamdouh Gabr, manager of the Al-Maktaba Al-Hadeetha (Modern Library) series that includes the Al-Hadeeth textbook of science and social studies, sees things differently. "Licensed books provide secure sources of information for students, and the ministry's decisions will foster a black market in unlicensed or poor quality books. Alternatively, it will encourage private teachers to sell their notes at higher prices, which parents will buy instead of the licensed school books."
Echoing his remarks, Abdel-Meguid said that his daughter was a pupil at general secondary grade, and her private teacher was selling his notes for LE30. "This will be the result of the ministry's new rules: students will substitute expensive, low- quality notes for less expensive, high-quality books."
Mustafa Bahaa, a secondary school student who uses notes provided by private teachers, said that "I would prefer to buy textbooks, but since they are not available I will depend on the notes." He is used to studying from private-sector textbooks, he said, since teachers often ask their students to buy them as they provide information more clearly. "They are better than the ministry's books," Bahaa said.
Other negative consequences of the absence of private- sector textbooks have also started to appear. Many fake or unlicensed books have started to appear on the market, selling for anywhere between LE5 and LE15. Moreover, there is now a black market in the better-known books. According to Mamdouh Sakr, owner of the Sakr Al-Faggala store, it is now easy to buy school textbooks on the black market in Cairo.
For its part, the ministry of education has thus far responded to the problem by mounting inspection campaigns, though these, Sakr said, have hardly stopped the problem. In Eissa's view the only real solution would be for the ministry to produce better official books. "The problem lies with the ministry's books. If these were as good as the private ones, students would ignore them and buy the official books."
It is not that the ministry has not taken note of such opinions. In fact, it has prepared new books for the new academic year that it says are better in terms of quality and competitiveness. They are shorter, more concise, comprehensible and interactive. However, they have not been released onto the market yet.
While students may be able to manage this year without licensed private-sector books, many in the publishing industry will not. "The minister's decision affects two million families that have members working in the business, from importing paper, to publishing and distributing books. There are 40 publishing houses, 3,000 printers and 50,000 bookstores in the country, and all these are involved in the market for educational books," Abdel-Meguid told the Weekly.
The minister's decision could lead to laying off workers in the industry, and this could in turn lead to social unrest. Furthermore, interference by the ministry would remove incentives for the private sector to invest. "If I were an investor who had lost a lot of money because of a ministry's sudden decision, how will I have the confidence to invest my money in another part of the economy? Maybe I will lose my investment there too," he said.
Even those who do not deal directly in school textbooks have been affected. Sakr said that the absence of textbooks had negatively affected his larger business. "Many people come to Al-Faggala to buy textbooks. Those people then buy from other stores while they are there. This is supposed to be our high season, but as you can see we are in the midst of a serious downturn," he said.
At the Al-Gohary bookstore , few people were buying notebooks or pens, and Hamdi Al-Gharabawi, who works at the store, told the Weekly that the absence of books had led people to delay their purchases of other products, hoping that a solution might appear. "If you had come by this time last year, you would not have been able to talk to me because of the huge number of customers," he said.
Mokhtar El-Sayed, owner of a bookstore in Nasr City, suggests deferring the charging of intellectual property rights to next year. The publishers have already printed their books, and they will incur huge losses if they are not allowed to sell them, he said. "This year, both sides should negotiate to reach a solution. That way, at least the publishers will not be ruined," he said.
Yet, there are few signs that the argument between the ministry and the publishers will be solved in this friendly manner. Badr has announced that the ministry will not yield in its demand to charge for intellectual property rights on schoolbook contents, estimating potential earnings at LE250 million.
Meanwhile, 24 of the country's publishers and private-sector textbook distributors have taken their case to court, and the case will be heard on 23 September. "If the court permits us to sell our books, then we will start distributing them immediately," Abdel-Meguid said.
"If, on the other hand, the court finds in the ministry's favour, we might as well all shut up shop," he lamented.