Undergraduate Li Na thought she had it all planned out: Degree in English this year, followed by a master's, and then a job as a professional translator.
But the 24-year-old from Inner Mongolia who graduates this year did not sit the nationwide entrance examination in January to enrol for the master's programme. She was not alone. Some 40,000 other students also did not do so.
Only 1.72 million students took the entrance exam this year compared to 1.76 million last year. It was the first time in 20 years that such a large group of students had "dropped out".
The reason? Money. From this year, graduate programmes at all of China's 113 public universities are no longer state-sponsored.
Anyone studying for a master's degree now has to pay about 8,000 yuan (S$1,600) a year. It is 10,000 yuan for a doctorate.
The Education Ministry has given the assurance that financial aid would be significantly boosted to ensure that no worthy student cannot afford graduate school. Still, the impact of the change on students like Ms Li has been stark.
"Before, there were no fees, so bursary money from the university could be used for living expenses. Now, the bursary money goes to pay tuition, so I still have to worry about living expenses," said the student from the Inner Mongolia Agriculture University.
"My parents said they could help me, but I didn't want to burden them."
While the cutback has been hailed by analysts who lament the bloated and uncompetitive nature of China's tertiary education system, it has been criticised in China by those who worry that it will shut out students from poorer backgrounds - precisely those for whom a higher degree would mean a significant boost up the career ladder.
In credentials-crazy China, it is almost impossible to get a job in fields like languages, business management and computer science without at least a master's.
Education experts said that policy change was necessary to raise standards, shake out students trying to avoid entering the adult world, and encourage enrolment in professionally oriented programmes.
That third has already shown up in statistics. Beijing institutions reported that the proportion of those applying for professionally oriented programmes grew from 14.3 per cent in 2010 to 38.3 per cent this year.
Professor Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of non-governmental organisation 21st Century Education Research Institute, said that previously, students just had to study hard for the entrance examination and thereafter, could cruise through their programme.
"Now that scholarship money is disbursed based on merit every year, this will spur students to work hard consistently rather than muddle through," he said.
Prof Xiong added that the new fees system would also spur universities to improve and compete for students, as fees would now add to their coffers.
But with widespread anxiety among students over the change, Renmin University education scholar Cheng Fangping said the fact that financial aid will be boosted to ameliorate the change has not been properly communicated. "The psychological impact on students from poorer backgrounds will be substantial as they have not been convinced of this, and so just won't apply," he said.
Prof Cheng added that a way to ensure that tertiary education does not become out of reach for those from disadvantaged backgrounds is to build up a network of "community college" type institutions in smaller cities where fees are lower.
These could be run by private operators, he noted.
"China has always focused too much on its official public universities, but in the US and Japan, these community colleges can be a good stepping stone for those from rural areas."
For now, those who have been deterred by the fees are more worried about joining seven million other university graduates in a job market that has more vacancies for blue-collar workers than those with degrees.
Hunan agriculture undergraduate Wen Shengwen, 21, has two more years to go, but already he has decided not to do his master's in veterinary science.
"I thought, if I went for a master's, then I should go all the way for a PhD, but it would just be too expensive overall," he said.
"So I might as well just enter the work force after graduation. I just hope I can get a job."
This article was first published on May 31, 2014.
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