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The photoreflectance signal from GaN films is sensitive to the ambient medium. A large decrease in the photoreflectance amplitude is observed, when the ambient medium is changed from air to vacuum. This effect is attributed to ultraviolet-light-induced desorption of oxygen from the sample surface leading to a reduction of the surface barrier height. The effect is absent, when a thin Ti layer is deposited on top of the GaN film. A simple model is used to demonstrate that the surface photovoltage can be strongly reduced with a decrease of the surface barrier height. © 2000 American Institute of Physics.