MELISSA KELLY was excited when she arrived as an exchange student at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). The geography and history major was looking forward to a taste of Chinese culture while being able to learn in an international setting. But while she has enjoyed her stay, she has found it difficult to engage in the same active student life she had at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She says she finds the predominant use of Cantonese on campus, and occasionally in classes, inhibiting. 'It is impossible for me to participate in student groups. I thought they would be willing to accommodate English speakers,' she said. 'I told them to contact me if there was some way I could participate or help out, but I have not heard from them again.' A professor on one of her courses last term spent much time trying to explain himself in English but often reverted to Chinese, she added. Christine Vatoyon, another exchange student, from Guam, shares similar frustrations. 'There are clubs I want to join but they are Chinese-speaking and it is difficult to force people to speak English,' she said. Foreign students have fewer course options because of the language barrier. Some exchange students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) said they thought they would enjoy a wider range of choices. 'I thought courses that were described in English on the Internet would be taught in English,' said Thomas Kirchner, a journalism and communication student from the University of California, Berkeley. His aim had been to study communication and local culture, but as only 30 per cent of courses in CUHK's department of journalism and communication are in English, he ended up taking marketing and anthropology instead. Despite the language barrier, universities have stepped up their drive to recruit more non-local students. Further support for overseas recruitment has come from the government with its announcement in November that the present quota on non-local research postgraduates would be lifted, while that for publicly-funded non-local undergraduates and taught postgraduates would be increased from 2 to 4 per cent. Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung has said a more culturally-mixed student body could help raise the international status of institutions. 'You have to have the best students to be able to compete at the highest international level,' he said. 'The presence of non-local students and postgraduates on campus will enrich the learning and academic experience of local students and faculty members.' Currently, mainlanders dominate the 2,197 non-local students in the SAR at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, many of whom are drawn to Hong Kong because of the supposedly common use of English at local institutions. But Rowena Li-huan, a Nanjing University student on exchange at Baptist University, was baffled by the mix of Chinese and English used in her classes. 'We use Cantonese in class, but Putonghua or English is used for assignments. It's not easy for me to understand the colloquial Cantonese used,' she said. Malte Mengers, a German third-year digital graphic communication student at the university, felt let down by five teachers who taught in Cantonese. 'I was quite lost in the beginning because some instructors had difficulties speaking English. I only felt better after picking up some Cantonese.' He said he was also disappointed that general education and some religion courses he was interested in were offered only in Chinese. Chinese University and HKBU allow the use of both English and Chinese. But the policy of using English as the official medium of instruction at other institutions is often ignored with some lecturers switching to Chinese because students ask them to. Amy, a City University business administration graduate, recalled that almost half the Chinese professors in her faculty switched from English to Cantonese while teaching, though class notes were in English. 'They used Cantonese when they were lecturing on local cases, especially those that were related to their own experiences. They can speak English, but they describe things more vividly in Cantonese,' she said. This academic year, though, a new policy was introduced at CUHK under which departments can only admit non-local postgraduate students who speak the language used in class. 'What we want is consistency between medium of instruction and admission policy. We leave it to departments to decide what medium of instruction they use, Cantonese, Putonghua or English,' explained pro-vice-chancellor Kenneth Young. CUHK's director of academic links, Thomas Wu Wai-on, said the issue of language barriers should be dealt with, but was not a stumbling block to getting more non-local students: 'Some overseas students speak Putonghua and are here to learn Chinese.' HKU's pro-vice-chancellor John Spinks said there were occasional complaints from students about lecturers' failure to use English in lectures, most of which originated from the faculty of arts. 'We deal with them the best we can,' he said, adding foreign students often saw the language issue as a challenge rather than hardship. The university was trying to develop ways to broaden foreign students' participation in activities, which were now more often run in Cantonese than English. But Spinks said it would be a gradual change and be more difficult to implement than the medium of instruction issue. Joshua Mok Ka-ho, convenor of CityU's comparative education policy research unit, said English should be used as the medium of instruction if the non-local student population rose further. Students' ability to communicate in English was also crucial to maintaining the territory's competitive edge in the region. 'If local students want to improve their English, they should take the initiative by mixing with their counterparts from abroad,' Dr Mok said. But Hong Kong students do not think they deliberately isolate foreign students, who they say tend to stick together. 'We hardly have topics to keep our conversation going. Foreign students use a lot of slang which we do not understand. We can just nod or shake our head in response, which isn't fun for any of us. Besides, their frequent visits to pubs and bars are not appealing to Hong Kong students,' said Gigi Pan Wing-chi, a third-year business student at CUHK.