A new policy aims to improve conditions by reducing numbers, reports Michael Delaney
China's decision to cap soaring university enrolments is likely to increase demand for study overseas.
The State Council last month decided to restrict the growing number of students in a bid to improve teaching conditions and reduce graduate unemployment.
Overseas education is a popular choice for those who do not get into a prestigious Chinese university. Increased competition for places will only add to the number who head overseas.
China has 23 million students in higher education, more than any other country in the world. But, according to last month's report from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China is facing a graduate-related crisis.
In 1999, when the Government launched its higher education expansion project, universities enrolled 1.59 million students, up 48 per cent on the previous year.
Last year, colleges and universities enrolled 5.04 million students, nearly five times as many as in 1998.
Yet over the next six months 60 per cent of new graduates will be unable to find work, as the number of graduates jumps 22 per cent from last year to more than 4 million, while the number of available jobs will have dropped to 1.66 million.
Limits on numbers are to be set at provincial level "in accordance with local conditions", according to state news agency Xinhua.
No specific numbers have been released so far. Yang Dongping, an education expert at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said the restriction would not curb higher education expansion. But he said the sector would develop in line with economic growth.
"College enrolment will increase in the future because China's population is still growing," Professor Yang said.
Critics argued that the policy would do nothing to address the wider problem of unemployment. The level of surplus labour this year will reach 14 million, about 1 million more than last year, the NDRC report says.
The State Council's announcement calls for improvements in vocational training and adult education to compensate for the reduction in the number of university places.
Councillors also called for improved teaching standards and stricter regulation of university management, in particular the prohibition of "excessive" fees.
This move will find few friends in universities, which are feeling the pinch from budget changes earlier this year that shifted the focus of spending from higher education to primary and secondary schooling in rural areas.