The number of students registered for this week's entrance exams is 240,000 less than last year's total, the third straight year of decline, China Daily reported Tuesday, suggesting the so-called golden era when Chinese universities enjoyed ever-increasing enrollment may be on the wane.
Ma Yan at MyCos, a higher education consulting firm in Beijing, said the registration decline "is mainly due to the shrinking number of high school students, which is a result of decreased birth rates caused by China's one-child policy."
He said the downward trend in enrollment may persist for several years.
Students take the college entrance exams at age 18 after completing 12 years of primary and middle school education, the report said. The latest census figures show the number of births in 2000 was 13.79 million, down from 23.54 million in 1990.
MyCos said enrollment at Chinese colleges also is affected by the students' growing interest in going overseas for their higher education.
"As the suppliers of higher education, colleges used to play a much more dominant role in selecting their students. Students have more choices now, as competition is not as great," Ma said.
The Chinese Education Ministry, in a report, has said Chinese universities will face financial pressures as enrollment continues to decrease.
Zhang Li, director of the ministry's education development department, said lower enrollment would "force colleges to improve the quality and structure of their programs and encourage higher education reform in general."