ALISHA BAILEY, graduate of an international school in the mainland, decided to further her studies there, as most of her classmates had headed abroad for university. 'Everyone was wondering why I wasn't going to the States,' she said. 'I was the only student in my graduating class and only the second student in the history of my school who wanted to go to university in China. Most graduates head for the United States or Britain.' Ms Bailey speaks fluent Putonghua, thanks to the school's strong bilingual curriculum. Following a year in Beijing topping up her reading and writing skills in Chinese, she hopes to begin a four-year bilingual programme in communications in China. 'I already spoke Mandarin and I wanted to pursue a career in China, so I thought that going to university in the mainland was the best option,' she said. Yim Jun, a senior manager at Wen Wei Po International Public Relations Consultants, organiser of a seminar on pursuing further education on the mainland at this year's Education & Careers Expo, said China's booming economy made studying in the mainland an increasingly popular option. 'There is a growing tendency for young people in Hong Kong to pursue careers in the mainland. Studying there gives them a good chance to build a network while still in school, which can help them find a job when they graduate.' While expenses can vary widely from school to school, the average cost - including tuition fees, books and living expenses - for a year's study in the mainland would be about 50,000 yuan. Another advantage is that some mainland institutions accepted Hong Kong test results. 'There are only eight universities in Hong Kong, and places are limited,' she said, adding that there was a range of mainland schools with different requirements to suit students at various levels. Jinan University in Guangzhou, which has a mandate to admit half of its students from outside the mainland, has the largest number of Hong Kong students. A university official estimated that between 5,000 and 6,000 Hong Kong students were enrolled, most of them studying economics or business. Annual tuition fees were more than 10,000 yuan and annual housing costs were more than 3,000 yuan. 'Our strongest selling point is economics. Our tuition and living costs are much lower than those in the US or other foreign countries,' the official said, adding that the university did not provide a job placement service. Other mainland universities popular with students from Hong Kong include Hua Qiao University in Fujian, which admits hundreds of students from Hong Kong every year. Still, the number of Hong Kong students heading north is small compared with those going overseas. Education consultants attributed this to the increased number of tertiary places in Hong Kong as a result of the launch of associate degree programmes, and the government's refusal to clarify its position on the recognition of mainland degrees. Another stumbling block is the widespread notion that academic standards on the mainland were low, that teaching methods were outdated and that students studying there would not have a chance to improve their English. Joanna D'Ettorre Leung, director of Academic and Continuing Education, questioned the wisdom of studying on the mainland, saying there were excellent universities there but they were few and far between. 'There are a number of universities in the mainland that are ranked among the top 200 in the world by the Times Education Supplement,' she said. 'But it is very competitive to get into them, because everyone is trying. Not only students from Hong Kong, but also from throughout Asia and the rest of the world.' A headhunter at a leading executive search firm said that, although education standards were improving, mainland degrees remained 'one of the weaker options'. 'Most Hong Kong students going to the mainland do so out of necessity,' the headhunter said. 'They can visit home frequently, and it is cheaper. But you get what you pay for. That is the universal perception of employers.' But studying in the mainland has definite advantages, especially for those wanting to pursue careers there. Colour Yeung, project officer at the Beijing-Hong Kong Academic Exchange Centre, said students from Hong Kong could gain a better understanding of mainland culture by studying alongside their domestic counterparts. 'Some consider programmes offered by mainland universities unique and professional, such as those in Chinese medicine,' Ms Yeung said. 'So more students are willing to further their studies in the mainland.' More than 10 mainland tertiary institutions represented at the expo will be trying to attract Hong Kong students. One of the largest is from Hunan province.