The Chinese education ministry has issued "yellow card" warnings to 60 universities and colleges this year, more than double the usual annual tally. A university that receives a yellow card must restrict enrolment and increase spending on teaching facilities within limitations laid down by the ministry.
The names of the 60 schools were published along with the country's official list of 1,778 fully qualified higher education institutions. Any Chinese universities or colleges that did not appear on the list had received a de facto red card and were therefore not qualified to provide higher education, senior education official Ji Ping announced.
China began issuing red and yellow cards in the late 1980s. Since then, the enthusiastic promotion of higher education in the country has led to an explosion in student numbers. By 2004, Chinese campuses were home to more than 13 million students, six times the number in 1991.
During this time, Mr Ji said, the quality of Chinese universities had continued to improve. Although the evaluation standard was increased twice, the number of schools receiving yellow cards remained at an average of between 20 and 30 each year.
Mr Ji stressed that the sudden rise in the number of yellow cards issued did not reflect any kind of crisis in Chinese universities.
"In the past, the evaluation standard included factors such as teaching staff, infrastructure, teaching facilities and library. The evaluation this year put more focus on the teachers' academic degrees. As a result, the number of unqualified schools rose to 60."
The evaluation, he said, was conducive to reform and improvement in the universities and colleges. "It also complies with the current situation in China, where the people's demand for education is great yet education is still making unbalanced progress."
He said that hundreds of billions of yuan had been put into the improvement of facilities, illegal institutions had been reined in and government services had been improved since the mechanism was established.
But some insiders who welcome the more realistic assessment of Chinese higher education say that the policy of punishing failing universities does little to address the institutions' continuing problems of staffing and university budgets.
"Most Chinese universities have more teachers than they should have," said one Beijing professor who declined to be named, "because education is owned by the state. Also, the number of students has increased too rapidly, and that leads to a lack of quality."
The professor said he hoped that the new focus of the assessments would induce universities to improve the value and content of the education they provide, moving away from a "production-line" mentality.
The list of qualified universities is a crucial reference document for Chinese students, who apply for universities before taking the university entrance exams in June. Eight million students will sit the entrance examinations this year, representing an increase of 1 million over 2004.