As China's marathon college entrance exams ended across the country, the nine-million-strong pool of hopeful candidates looks set to shrink as the number of Chinese migrating overseas grows and the population ages, analysts said on Monday.
Eventually, the higher education sector will be forced to compete for students, in stark contrast with today's feverish competition for a place at college, according to a recent report.
A total of 9.39 million students enrolled on China's national college entrance exam, or "gaokao," this year, a slight rise following a five-year decline in enrollment figures, the education portal eol.cn reported.
The trend is already becoming apparent in soaring admission rates. In China's central Henan province, admission rates have risen from around 42 percent to around 78 percent in the past five years alone.
Nationwide, 76 percent of gaokao candidates are now able to find a university place.
An aging population means that the pool of youngsters will gradually shrink over the next few years, before changes in China's stringent family planning policies begin to take effect.
By the end of last year, some three million Chinese were studying in overseas higher education institutions, according to a report on the ministry of education's official website.
"The number of students going to study overseas continues to increase each year," the report said, adding that some 400,000 students began new courses of study overseas in 2013, 14,300 more than in 2012.
Yuan Gulai, a lawyer based in the eastern province of Zhejiang, said many families are already losing confidence in the ability of China's educational system to give their child a head start in life.
"More and more ordinary people, even those within the government, are losing confidence [in the system]," Yuan said. "Some people emigrate to give their kids some hope for the future."
"But there are some who ... will eventually return to make money and to take advantage of the system, in which businesses don't respect the rules," he said.
Some one million students have declined to enroll for the gaokao at all, according to the ministry of education.
The fall in candidates has been most marked in Shanghai, which has some of the highest grades among schoolchildren in the country.
The city saw just 52,000 registrations this year, a fall of 50 percent compared with 2006.
And many more parents will enroll their child, but also apply at the same time to overseas colleges.
A Shenzhen-based parent surnamed Li said his child had applied to university in China and in the United States.
"Eventually, he went to study in the U.S.," he said. "I was a teacher, and I was very unhappy with our national education system and teaching methods."
He said while previous waves of Chinese immigrants had been motivated by business opportunities, education is becoming more of a key factor in the decision to leave China.
"I'm not optimistic about the future of the intellectual elite, nor of the financial elite," he said.
"And from a safety perspective, it's understandable to want to take the immigration route when it comes to our children’s education."
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.