During the summer of 2011, several out-of-town students at the University of Hong Kong found themselves homeless for their next academic year and were forced to find non-university-supported housing.
Since most of these students spend their summers in their home countries, panic and frustration was an inevitable outcome. Many took to Facebook in search of roommates, and to ask friends in Hong Kong for contact details of property agents. Others went straight to Craigslist hoping to find, in a city known for some of the highest rents in the world, something decent and affordable.
Even though he was kicked out of his hall, Paul Shang Hyun Jeong, a Hong Kong-born Korean and now a second year philosophy student, had a place in the city to move back into. However his irritation over the end of his ‘hall education’ had become an annoying itch he had to scratch when he found out a number of his friends had been kicked out without having any place to live.
He took matters into his own hands and addressed the issues of the HKU accommodation system to several departments. Few took notice of it. When the wait became too long, he wrote the Dean of Student Affairs a 3,000-word email and managed to schedule a meeting him, which shed more light on a rather unique system. After the meeting, Mr. Jeong summarized in a note on Facebook the points that had been raised by both parties.
The accommodation system at HKU has lead to echoing debates over the semesters. Most discussion concerns questions about their purpose and value of the university halls, but the most important question on a lot of students’ minds is: why isn’t there sufficient accommodation?
Dean of Student Affairs Albert Chau says the University reasons that after a guaranteed first year of living in halls, non-local students will be able to better their cultural integration into Hong Kong by living outside of university residences.
“I firmly believe that a range, a variety of residential experience is good for non-local students,” Dr. Chau says. “ If I just put the students in a hall for all three or four years, and the student does not have close contact with the local community in Hong Kong […] I don’t think the residential experience is complete.”
But the fact of the matter is, there simply are not enough places to go around. Currently with 13 residential halls and three non-hall residences, HKU manages to accommodate around 4000 students out of an overall student population of 22,000. Of the 4000 places, 30% are reserved for foreign students, most of whom have been newly admitted to the university.
The halls at HKU are in essence more of an institution than a place of residence. Whether or not a student is able to maintain a place in a hall depends on an elaborate points system that takes into account the student’s home living conditions and hall contributions.
“Every occasion, every opportunity is an opportunity for students to learn and grow,” Dr. Chau says b way of explanation. “We see hall as part of the education, as part of the development process. […] We don’t see it as purely a facility for welfare or for accommodation. It’s an opportunity for education, and that is very important.”
The halls pride themselves on their culture, which are aimed at encouraging students to participate in a range of activities that will help them develop specific values, such as fairness, humility and acceptance. However today, activities seem to have lost sight of their values and are driven by competition instead.
The more a student contributes to the hall, the bigger the chances are that this student will be readmitted to the hall for the next academic year. Activities range from sports to arts to becoming a member of the hall’s executive body.
Celine Ngai, now a fourth year nursing student, has been living in R. C. Lee Hall for three years. She plays three different sports, takes part in one culture team and used to be a floor chairperson and captain of the dance team. She describes the main features of her halls culture as harmony and unity. For her, R. C. Lee is a place where anyone can choose what he or she wants to commit to, regardless of their cultural backgrounds.
When asked how she would evaluate her general attitude towards the hall system, Ms. Ngai said that through her contributions, she hoped to make R. C. Lee and her floor a better place. Although she thought the system was unfair for many out-of-town students who do not want participate in the activities, she said the halls provide students with all-round development. Because halls spaces are limited, however, it’s “survival of the fittest,” she said.
A major problem is that most hall functions are carried out in Cantonese, and so many international students miss out on their “opportunity for education” and their chance to secure a place for the next academic year.
During my own one-year hall experience at R. C. Lee, I had asked to join the drama club. Because hall plays are conducted in Cantonese, which I do not speak, the club chairperson told me I would only be able to work backstage. He then told me he would get back to me, but never did. When I asked another Hong Kong hall mate why more activities are not conducted in English, he answered: “It’s more convenient for us to speak in Cantonese”.
Mr. Jeong said in an interview that he felt that halls did not provide a sense of belonging for newcomers, because their functions alienated non-locals through the choice of language, another point he raised to the Dean of Student Affairs.
He said that by driving out the foreign students, local students also miss out on the chance to improve their English. “This is a university and this is probably their last chance to learn proper English through integrating, through meeting all these international students, a lot of whom speak English as a second language too,” he said.
The language barrier has made it even more difficult for overseas students to understand what hall culture is supposedly about. When asked about the issue, Mr. Jeong said he felt that many Hong Kong students are misunderstanding the concept of hall. He later added:
“I do agree with hall education. It’s just that it’s lost its value, in its current state at least. I do like the ideas that they aspired to originally.’ But today, he said, “students are learning principles without knowing why”.
In his letter to Dr. Chau, Mr. Jeong wrote of the frustrations that foreign students encounter. “Of course there is some fault in students perhaps not ‘trying hard enough,’” he wrote, “but it is unreasonable for me to even attempt to try hard to participate a lot and be a part of the hall spirit when the so-called hall spirit rejects and secludes international students first.”
Yet, not all international students have had difficulties integrating to hall life. Sony Ángel Han, a second year Industrial Engineering student from Paraguay, describes his hall life at Suen Chi Sun Hall as quite enjoyable, although he sees many other people struggling.
“I think as long as the non-locals make the effort, there is a way to enjoy the hall life,” he says. “But certainly, there are a lot of things to be improved. Non-locals definitely need more support in accommodating in the halls”.
It doesn’t seem like the University has any plans to change its accommodation policies any time soon. However, a new set of residences is being built in Kennedy Town and should be opened by the 2012-2013 academic year. The residencies will consist of four buildings, which together will be able to accommodate 1,800 additional students. Half of these places are to be given to postgraduate students and half to undergraduates, and around 70% of the 900 undergraduate places are to be reserved for non-local students.
Meanwhile, since his encounter with the Dean of Student Affairs during the summer of 2011, Mr. Jeong has been busy setting up, with four other students, the International Student Association (ISA), which aims to act as the main body representing the whole international student population. Mainland Chinese students have already set up the Chinese Students and Scholars Association Rights and Interests Committee (CSSA), which acts as a gateway for students from mainland China to speak up as a collective group.
“Our main target is to even grounds with the local students, that’s all that we are really asking”, Mr. Jeong says. “We want an even ground, we want the integration of different cultures which can only happen through a common language”.