THE People's Congress of China has started to debate a new law on higher education as part of the shift to a more market-oriented economy.
The powers of the ministry of education over higher education are likely to come under attack in what promises to be a departure from the congress's usual somewhat docile proceedings.
The ministry wants to rationalise and reform inefficient universities while keeping the higher education system small and manageable. It is worried that any quick expansion of higher education will lead to graduate unemployment.
Lu Qiang, a professor at Qinghua University and a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said recently that education reform would flounder if the ministry of education tried to control university management "like a bird in a cage".
But there could be a showdown between the ministry and the more enterprising and commercially oriented universities.
The universities, unwilling to face the pain involved in restructuring and rationalisation, would prefer to expand student numbers to solve their revenue crisis. Managers say there is a contradiction in simultaneously limiting central and local government financial support while refusing universities the option of expanding student numbers to attract fees.
At the heart of the debate is the question of who should control higher education in the developing market economy.
Some educationists feel that universities lack initiative because of the paternalistic attitudes of the ministry and the only way to meet the demands of the market economy is to allow universities freer rein to make their own decisions.