BEIJING, JAN. 16 -- China is considering a radical shift in its education system that would require most university students to pay their own tuition and find their own jobs, according to official press reports.

Chinese university students have long enjoyed free educations but have had little choice of jobs once they graduated. All of this is likely to change, the reports said.

Official newspapers quoted Wang Zhichang, director of student affairs at the state education commission, as saying that the proposed changes will be discussed at a national conference on higher education later this month.

A commission spokesman declined to comment on the shift to a foreign reporter, but the publicity being given to the issue indicates that the changes are likely to be adopted, Chinese observers said.

Wang said that within five years, about 70 percent of Chinese university students will study at their own expense and find their own jobs after graduation. Until recently, approximately 70 percent of university graduates were assigned jobs by the state.

University students interviewed here during the past week said that the reform would make them work harder, but not all of them favored a change. It will inject a new element of risk into their lives, and many Chinese students are averse to taking risks.

The reform aims at bringing the education system into line with forces of supply and demand, and thus meet the needs of the market economy that China is trying to develop.

It would mark a radical departure from the rigidity of the current system, which has condemned many educated Chinese to jobs that fail to match their qualifications. One brilliant Chinese mathematician spent years living in poverty and teaching in a provincial middle school before he finally gained recognition.

It was learned recently that 38 Chinese who received master's degrees in business adminstration in the United States were given jobs when they returned here that made no use of their special training.

In an unusual criticism, the China Youth News, an organ of the Communist Youth League, accused government bureaucrats of "wasting" such talents.

Although the proposed reform of job assignments appears to foreshadow an improvement in the system, the reaction from students is mixed. Most welcome it, but some fear that the freer system will result in more unemployment.

Even a few of the brightest students seem reluctant to give up the security implicit in the present system. "Maybe this change will make college students study harder, but new problems may occur," said one Beijing student. "Some graduates may not be able to find a job, making the society unsteady and causing unemployment."

Some students also fear that peers with high-level personal connections could use those relationships to get special treatment. This already occurs here, but it could develop into a more serious abuse with the introduction of a more flexible system, some students say.

The proposed reform, together with proposed changes in the civil service, is intended to have the opposite effect, providing employment according to needs and credentials rather than quotas and connections, officials say.

In a speech at last October's party congress, Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang introduced plans to improve the efficiency of the government through civil service examinations.

Zhao also described educational reform as the highest priority facing the nation. China's educational system is still recovering from the devastation of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, in which most universities were closed.

The new reform measures were tested at selected universities. At Shenzhen University, in China's southernmost special economic zone, graduates were required for the first time last year to apply for jobs and compete with other applicants.