By Jaroslaw Adamowski
BUDAPEST: The Hungarian government has decided to nationalize the textbook market and take over as the country’s sole publisher and distributor of primary school books starting in September 2014. While Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has called the move a justified mean to curb down the publishers’ profits he views as exorbitant, many industry representatives say it could be detrimental to Hungary’s publishing industry.
Come September this year, the Hungarian government will take over a market local observers estimate to be worth about HUF 14 billion (US$64 million). Under the plan, a state-run institution tasked with preparing and publishing school books will be providing books to all primary schools in Hungary, with two books per subject and class made available to pupils.
The move has drawn criticism by industry representatives both in Hungary and abroad. In a statement, the International Publishers Association (IPA) said that educators “fear the law will be pedagogically harmful,” and points that even some members of the ruling Fidesz party voted against it.
Péter László Zentai, Director of the Hungarian Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Association (MKKE), said that the publishers who will be forced out of the school book market by the government will probably have to turn to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg for justice.
The textbook market is part of the government’s general nationalization strategy directed by Orbán including utility companies, pension funds and banks. Since taking over power in 2010, his Fidesz party has been trying to stimulate the country’s faltering economy by its policies of increased state interventionism and increased direct taxes. The Hungary’s main VAT rate is 27%, making it the highest among all European Union member states. Orbán and his government are set to seek reelection in the upcoming parliamentary vote scheduled for this spring.
Neighboring Poland Mulls Textbook Nationalization
Meanwhile, the idea to allow the state replace school book publishers has been gaining ground in neighboring Poland. In January 2014, the country’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk said this year’s first graders will receive their new comprehensive school book free of charge. As in Hungary, the Polish government is aiming to prepare the textbook on its own.
“We are aware that deciding on a free, state-made school book will generate emotions, it is understandable,” Tusk said at a press conference. “There exists a powerful lobby of school book publishers, also teachers are used to having a wide choice.”
In 2015, the state-made book is to be also provided to second graders, according to the Polish prime minister. Tusk said the books will be the property of primary schools, and copies will be replaced as necessary, but not every year.
In a rare example of bipartisanship in Poland, the proposal by the ruling center-right Civic Platform has been welcomed by some opposition parties, such as the center-left Democratic Left Alliance and liberal Your Movement. Despite this, the reactions of Polish publishing industry representatives have so far been predominantly similar to those in Hungary.
“We are waiting for more detailed information. Without it we wouldn’t want to comment on the proposed modifications,” says Włodzimierz Albin, President of the Polish Chamber of Books (PIK). “We are, however, hoping that the proposals will mostly take into consideration the quality of education and the well-being of Polish children.”
“I also believe that children should receive their school books for free. But Prime Minister Donald Tusk wants to make it happen by ruining the publishing industry,” Piotr Marciszuk, head of the educational books section of the PIK, said in an interview with daily Gazeta Wyborcza.
“Currently, the big three [educational] publishers and two smaller publishers are mostly [financing themselves] by books for the grades one to three,” Marciszuk said. “The prime minister said that the government will create this book on its own. I have no idea how it will do this, but then all these publishers will go bankrupt, both big and small ones.”
Marciszuk also said that providing a single state-made book could tempt governments to try to influence its historical narrative in a way which would present their opponents from left and right in a negative light, or even ignore certain children’s book writers regarded as controversial.
South Africa Considers Launching State-owned Textbook Publisher
Outside Europe, South Africa is among countries which have been mulling nationalizing the school book industry include South Africa. In 2012, the ruling African National Congress published a policy document which proposed the “establishment of a state-owned publishing enterprise” designed to publish textbooks.
The document, released in March 2012, says the country is experiencing “challenges in the production, distribution and availability of textbooks and other instruments or vehicles of knowledge production.” The methods and practices of their acquisition from the private sector and distribution “are, in some cases, neither cost-effective nor efficient,” according to the document.
As in Hungary and Poland, the country’s publishing industry representatives responded with accusing the government of drafting ineffective solutions to tackle the problems endured by South Africa’s education system.