THERE was a time when Beijing University was assured of enrolling China's brightest and best. No longer.
Last year, the prestigious university failed to fill its freshman class, rebuffed by hundreds of students anxious to avoid required one-year military training and the grip of Beijing's communist ideologues.
Government officials and university administrators contend that Beida, as the university is known in Chinese shorthand, fell only six to 10 students short of the planned class of 2,220. But many professors and observers say the shortfall was several hundred, forcing the university to lower admissions standards and acknowledge a new competition in Chinese higher education.
"Beijing was considered the best city in China to study, but that's changing," says a professor at Beijing Normal University, among the capital's elite institutions. "Now students want to stay in the south or be on the coast because they have more opportunities and can make more money."
Four years after political upheaval shook Beijing campuses, reforms in the economy and higher learning are changing how China educates its power elite. Under orthodox Marxism in China, these universities often were considered tools of ideology and indoctrination. They recruited only the most politically reliable for training as party technocrats and economic planners.
Now, financial crisis and market reforms are rewriting the role of universities in a changing society. A new moneyed elite is emerging, relying on the clout of the marketplace more than a diploma and political connections.
"In China, people were educated to be officials and serve the communist regime. Now the sacredness of being an official is fading away, because current policy allows individuals to find their own breathing space outside the official hierarchy," says Chen Xiaoping, a law professor at Beijing's University of Politics and Law who lost his job for his role in the 1989 democracy movement. "In the future, the elite will not be centered in Beijing and people's ideas of prestigious universities will change."
Recently, the government has prodded Beijing's staid campuses into new policies that will reshape the pinnacle of the world's largest education system, analysts say.
After years of official reticence to expand university enrollment and take the political risk of recruiting more educated youths for urban campuses, the government plans to double student numbers in higher education and adult education institutions to 5.5 million by the turn of the century, says Zhou Yuanqing, director of higher education at the State Education Commission.
One hundred universities, about one-tenth of China's higher education institutions, will be expanded and strengthened, and two-year and three-year colleges will be added.
Both students and administrations will gain autonomy under the changes. With shrinking government funds providing less than 80 percent of college budgets today, state-funded students, once the cream of the crop, are sharing classrooms with more youths paying their own tuition, a signal that money, more than political connections, will decide who goes to college in China in the future.
By Chinese press estimates, one in seven college students pays his own way, and many universities hope to increase that to 25 percent in the next five years, Chinese observers say. That will start to bring China, which now educates only about 3 percent of college-aged youths, closer to developed countries' rate of 20 to 30 percent.
For the first time since students undertook their own job-hunting in 1985, the majority is fashioning their own futures rather than relying on state placement. And the government has relaxed controls on students who want to go abroad if they are willing to pay a special charge.
With college enrollments now allowed to rise about 6 percent yearly for most institutions and 8 percent annually for coastal universities, campus facilities already stretched will face increased pressure. Universities are openly soliciting foreign investors to bring in desperately needed capital and research funds, and privately funded universities are beginning to emerge.
Curricula heavy on Marxist ideology are giving way to courses in accounting, business management, and other pragmatic disciplines in bids to boost colleges' recruitment of the brightest students. Cash-strapped administrations are starting their own companies, and for the first time, professors are being allowed to seek second jobs to augment their meager pay.
In a comment mirroring official ambivalence about granting such powers to campuses, Mr. Zhou, the state education official, says such university enterprises are still at "an infant stage" and admits he "worries" that campus officials are spending so much time managing businesses rather than educating.
Chinese analysts say the upshot is that economic change is forcing some political loosening on university campuses. This year, the State Education Commission chose to reduce the one-year military training at Beida and Fudan University in Shanghai, mainly because the two schools were losing out in student recruitment to coastal institutions.
Beida has paid a high price for political restrictions imposed after 1989 when Marxist study was reinforced and a hard-line administration was installed.
Professors and students welcome the economic changes, but they say it will take more to revive the academic vitality drained off since 1989.
"The atmosphere is very dull. But Beida has a long tradition of free thinking, and I think that tradition will go on," says a senior professor. "After June the 4th, Beijing University suffered temporary wounds. But as the Chinese saying goes, a spark can set a prairie fire."