But the change is wrenching long-accepted practices from their foundations. The introduction of market forces throughout the 1990s has yielded tuition fees and new private colleges. Educators are adding courses that will feed a booming appetite for skilled workers. Schools have had to adjust quickly as enrollment has soared: a newly reorganized Zhejiang University, near Shanghai, for example, has grown from about 10,000 students in the mid-1990s to about 45,000, in part through consolidation with other universities.
For new graduates, the most dramatic change may be that a bachelor's degree from an A-list school - once a guaranteed steppingstone to success - is now seen as simply a first step in climbing the economic ladder. More are planning to get master's degrees and even doctorates. Indeed, China almost doubled the number of science and engineering PhDs between 1996 and 2001, to just over 8,000. Some observers say that within a decade, China is likely to boast some of the world's leading engineering schools.
"This is a crucial period for China's universities," says Shi Jinghuan, executive director of Tsinghua University's Institute of Education Research in Beijing. "The whole society, and higher education with it, is in transition."
At Tsinghua, this year's seniors have been among the first to feel the impact of attending one of the seven institutions tapped to compete with the Harvards and Sorbonnes of the West. The school has boosted exchanges with foreign scholars and recruited them to teach, and is offering some classes in both Chinese and English. Known for several decades as the MIT of China, it is requiring more general education and allowing undergraduates to enroll in a dozen schools, from management to architecture. Most faculty have studied abroad. Extracurriculars are popular, from the venerable chorus to a recently added crew team. Virtually all students are familiar with English, and many speak it with an almost easy familiarity.
The flurry of initiatives has been both positive - and a bit rattling - for students.