Late last year the prestigious Fudan University accused its city rival Shanghai Jiao Tong University of "vicious fraud", saying its staff were attempting to persuade students to abandon their applications to Fudan and opt for Jiao Tong instead. The allegations were denied, but the scandal attracted the attention of education authorities and was seen as a reflection of new cutthroat competition for top students.
That competition has increased as the pool of school-leavers has begun to shrink in China.
"A recent slump...in the number of students enrolling to take the college entrance examinations has awakened Chinese universities to an inconvenient truth: the era of glory has gone and they will soon have to [compete] for a decreasing number of students," said a commentary last May by the official Xinhua news agency, ascribing the drop to a declining birthrate, easier access to overseas universities and difficulties in obtaining quality education.
Official media warned that universities faced financial pressures or even a challenge to their survival.
"Recruitment was already very hard as private universities lack the public recognition of their public counterparts. Now it's like rubbing salt into the wound," Xia Tao, who works for a private university in Shandong, was quoted in the official China Daily as saying, adding that 2011 was the third consecutive year of fall.
Academics predict that the impact of demographic decline on the higher education system in China will become a major topic in 2012, as it has been in recent years in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.
Japan and Korea
Asia's most prosperous economies - Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan - have birthrates that are among the lowest in the world. Recently released census figures show that China's birthrate is also falling and its population is ageing faster than expected.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in a study of higher education in the context of a shrinking student population, has said: "Japan, Korea and China are the countries that will experience the most notable, continuous long-term decrease of the 18 to 23 population."
In Japan, that decline began in 1993. The college age cohort, which was 12 million in 1995, will decline to just over seven million in 2020, according to official predictions. This sparked mergers among 10 national universities and guidelines for the closure of private universities.
South Korea's drop began in 2003. Education Minister Lee Ju-Ho said last year that higher education enrolment could decline by 40% in the next 12 years.
The college age population will peak this year at 690,000 falling to 420,000 by 2025. Within six years the number of high school graduates will fall below the university enrolment figure, according to Statistics Korea.
Institutional mergers and closures are under way as part of the Korean government's higher education reforms designed to counter the twin effects of over-expansion and demographic decline.
"The Japanese and Korean governments have adopted strategies to respond to the coming impact of demographic change on higher education by downsizing the higher education system," the OECD said.
China's demographic decline is a decade behind Korea's and is likely to become more evident in the coming year. "In China the same elements are in place but it is further back on the curve compared to Korea and Japan," said Deane Neubauer, an expert on higher education in Asia at the University of Hawaii's East-West Centre.
Cai Fang, director of the Institute of Population at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, suggested last year that China's demographic dividend, where the working population outnumbers the elderly and the young who are still in education or training, will disappear sometime between 2013 and 2015, but that its end is already becoming evident.
At the same time, Fang pointed out that China wants 50% of its school-leaving population in tertiary education by 2030, meaning that young people will need to be dependent until age 22 to 23. This could have an impact on the overall economy and on the international economy as well.
Although higher education participation levels are low in China at around 20%, Frans Willekens, an honorary fellow at the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute, recently pointed out that only a slight increase, from 10.1% to 11.5%, in the rate of entry into higher education in countries with large populations like China and India would produce a level of skilled human capital equal to that of Europe and North America, where 40% of the population enters tertiary education.
China's college-age cohort of 137 million in 2010 is projected to decline to 109 million in 2020. This year, according to government figures, registrations for the national college exam, the gaokao, dropped 10% in Anhui province, 6% in Beijing and 12% in Shanghai. The number of gaokao candidates overall has shrunk by a million since 2008 when it peaked at 10.8 million.
Less robust demand
Whatever the trends, they will be magnified in comparison to other countries. "Demographic slow-down is going to look different in China than Japan and South Korea because of the size of the higher education system in China," said Neubauer.
"China is just beginning to see surplus capacity in higher education growth," Neubauer told University World News. "Now you see many higher education institutions in China scrambling around to justify themselves.
"We are beginning to see private institutions that are outside the state system and outside the prosperous coastal cities trying to find a new role. Many of them had concentrated on teaching but now they may be moving into research."
According to Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE), the diminishing share of under-25s in China could translate into a "less robust" demand for degrees. Places at prestigious universities will be less fought over, and perhaps fewer Chinese students will study overseas or apply for a course in an expensive international branch campus in China.
The existing segmentation in the Chinese higher education market is expected to intensify in the future, as foreign universities compete over a smaller pool. Therefore, "the academic programmes they offer will have to be more targeted in order to meet demand," the OBHE said.
However, an ageing population is not necessarily bad for higher education institutions. For example, it could signify a rapid increase in demand for postgraduate degrees, which are popular among professionals over 25, according to the OBHE.
But the main difference between China and other countries in Asia is the lower participation rate compared to very high levels in countries such as Korea, which has 82% of its cohort in higher education.
With participation levels in Japan and Korea already high, the impact of demographic decline was felt strongly. But experts believe China can avoid a similar contraction in higher education by evening out participation differentials between the regions and between the cities and the countryside, where participation levels are far from reaching saturation point.
"There's quite a way to go in terms of participation rates in China," said Christopher Ziguras, deputy dean of the International School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at Melbourne's RMIT University in Australia.
"There has been a huge expansion in higher education in the last decade, and if they keep the number of places static, participation rates will creep up as the demographic figures decline. They may not see demographic decline in higher education at all," Ziguras told University World News.
"Regional differences are very considerable in China," said Neubauer of the East-West Centre. "And the difference between city and countryside is still palpable and extreme, so that if you are looking at participation and quality, there is a wide variation."
For example, Peking University accepted 300 out of the 80,000 students from Beijing who took the 2009 national university entrance exam, whereas 98 students of the 985,000 from Henan who took the same exam made the cut, according to official figures.
"That might be a deficiency of the Chinese higher education system but it encourages the belief by foreign and Chinese universities that the participation rate can only increase and that the demographic downturn will not undercut their recruitment policies," according to the OBHE.
Zhang Li, director of the Education Development and Research Centre of the Ministry of Education, said: "The challenges arising from decreased enrolment may actually have a positive effect. Lower enrolment numbers will force colleges to improve the quality and structure of their programmes, and encourage higher education reform in general."
The ramifications of East Asian demographic decline, particularly in China, are globally important, according to experts, at a time when East Asia's higher education systems are rising to a level where they are beginning to emerge as strong competitors with the West, particularly in research.
Chinese government moves will be watched particularly closely.
Meanwhile the rising 'demographic dividend' in countries like India, which are still developing their higher education systems to match growing aspirations and world standards, could mean that the country's young population - more than 70% of its population is under 35 - could fuel the higher education sector at a time when aging populations in the West and East Asia are reducing theirs.
India's college age cohort is projected at 139 million in 2020, according to figures collated by the US National Science Foundation. The Asian Development Bank predicts that India, along with Pakistan, the Philippines and Malaysia, will reap a demographic dividend for at least two more decades.
SOUTH KOREA: Universities brace for fewer students
CHINA: Massification has increased inequalities
CHINA: University enrolment crisis looms
CHINA: Ex-premier criticises higher education reform
ASIA: Universities' rise beginning to eclipse US
JAPAN: New graduate schools struggle to find students
JAPAN: English courses to boost recruitment
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