China this week moved away from a Soviet-style, centralized educational system toward a system more closely resembling western models as part of the country's drive for economic modernization.

The reforms were outlined yesterday in a Chinese Communist Party Central Committee document and discussed in a briefing for reporters today by Chinese Ministry of Education officials. The reforms are the largest to occur in China's educational system since the Cultural Revolution, which officially ended nearly 10 years ago. The Chinese consider the educational reforms equal in importance to price reforms and the recently announced reforms of the country's scientific and technological establishments.

In another development, the official New China News Agency reported today that China's more than 50 million high school and college students will be required to undergo military training beginning later this year. The move marks another stage in the country's shift away from a peasant-based Army toward a more professional military led by more highly educated officers.

The student trainees will form a reserve officer corps on which the country can draw for a leaner but technically more competent Army. China had a similar student military training program in the 1950s, but it was phased out.

Under the educational reforms, colleges and universities are to be allowed greater flexibility in developing curricula, selecting teaching materials and hiring and promoting administrators. The reforms mark a sharp contrast to the policies introduced by the late chairman Mao Tse-tung, under which all aspects of schooling and university education were kept under strict central government and Communist Party control.

China's pragmatic leaders aim to quadruple national output by the year 2000, but most foreign observers have agreed that without a reform of the educational system, China will be unable to achieve its ambitious goals. A World Bank study on China in 1983 said China's literacy rate and general educational level are high by the standards of many developing countries, "but the technical and scientific profile of its labor force is not conducive to rapid economic development."

Universities will now have more control over their own budgets, officials said. And once students graduate, they are supposed to have more say about where they will work than has been the case until recently, when students had virtually no say as to where and to what jobs they were assigned.

If the changes are implemented as planned, China is expected to begin to make up for a severe lack of skilled administrators, managers, scientists and technicians, one of the results of the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. Students will advance on the basis of merit and not on the basis of their politics, as was once the case, according to Chinese officials.

During the Cultural Revolution, children of intellectuals were often kept out of universities. College and university administrators were told to favor students from worker or peasant backgrounds, regardless of their academic qualifications. At one point, education virtually came to a halt. Many schools and universities were closed for at least four years. Teachers were discriminated against and sent to the countryside to work in the fields. Millions of Chinese young people went for years without a formal education.

At the briefing, Yu Fuzeng, an Education Ministry deputy director, described a number of serious weaknesses in the current educational system, including rigid government control. At the same time, he said, however, that education must continue to serve "socialist construction."

Among the major problems listed in the Central Committee document are poor elementary education, a shortage of qualified teachers, and weak vocational and technical education programs.

According to the World Bank study, China's universities have fallen "far behind the higher education and research institutions of the West and Japan."

Some of the highlights of the educational reforms include:

Responsiblity for basic education to be delegated to local authorities.

A requirement that by 1990, students in major cities and coastal areas be required to attend school for nine years. This nine-year compulsory education requirement will extend to small cities, towns and rural areas by 1995, officials said.

In secondary schools, the number of students enrolled in vocational training is to increase from the current 32 percent to about 50 percent by 1990. More than 50 million students are currently enrolled in secondary schools.

A new system to reduce gradually government grants and subsidies and increase scholarships to encourage "academic achievers" in higher education. A limited number of students who have the means will pay their own way through universities. Others will begin to pay a nominal set of fees and some of their own expenses to help reduce government deficits. College and university enrollment is nearly 1.4 million.

*An improvement in teacher training. An estimated 70 percent of teachers now in secondary schools are considered unqualified.

Students studying to be teachers will not have to pay university fees.