Liu Wei died in the county where she spent most of her short life. But it wasn't where she was supposed to end her days. The daughter of poor farmers in Hebei province, Liu had been one of the 6 million-odd students intending to graduate from universities and colleges across the mainland this summer. While her father and younger brother toiled on construction sites far from home and her mother worked in the fields, Liu dreamed of making the leap from farm girl to official city resident with a job befitting a college graduate. 'A lot of people in the village were quite jealous that my daughter went to college,' says her mother, Wang Shuxian. 'She always wanted to go to college. She didn't know what she wanted to do in the future but she wanted to study. I can't read or write so I wanted her to go. I thought it would change her life. I thought it would mean she wouldn't have to be a farmer.' Higher education did transform Liu's life but not in the way her parents anticipated. Consumed with guilt over the financial sacrifices her family had to make to support her and increasingly worried and ashamed about her failure to find a job for when she graduated, Liu's final year at college was a descent into depression and anxiety. On January 23, just before the Lunar New Year holiday, her studies came to a premature end when she threw herself into a deep ditch full of freezing, filthy water. She was just 21. Her father, Liu Shangyun, says: 'I think she did it because she was worried she wouldn't be able to get a job and so she wouldn't be able to repay us.' LIU'S REACTION WAS EXTREME but not unusual. A report in April by the Shanghai Education Commission listed suicide as the No1 cause of death among students. While relationship difficulties lead some to end their lives, more and more are committing suicide because they are unable to deal with the uncomfortable truth that years of study no longer guarantees a job. The global financial crisis has exacerbated the already grim employment prospects for the mainland's 24 million college students. With the number of new graduates rising every year - up half a million this year from 5.6 million in 2008 - there is simply not enough work for them. The 6.1 million set to graduate this year will be fighting for jobs with the 1.5 million graduates from last year who are still unemployed. In a country increasingly polarised between the haves and have-nots, a college education is seen as crucial for future success and, for the children of the mainland's 700 million farmers, passing the entrance exam is the only realistic route out of a life of backbreaking work for subsistence wages. It also means potential access to a coveted city hukou, the residence permit that provides holders with services such as education and health care. Without a hukou, anyone working away from their village or county is a migrant worker, like Liu Wei's father, who earned 1,000 yuan (HK$1,137) a month working on building sites in Shanghai. In a diary entry from September 2007, Liu wrote: 'It's not tragic that I was born in a poor family in the countryside. The tragic thing will be if I cannot get out of the countryside. I am sure I can become a city resident after my studies.' Apart from a few photographs and exam certificates, Liu's diary, a neat 100,000 character document written in a series of notebooks, is all her parents have to remind them of their daughter. In the graduation photograph from her high school in Wei county, in southern Hebei, she stands in the third row, a serious-looking girl in a red shirt. 'Even at an early age, she didn't like to talk too much but she was always writing in her diary,' says her mother. 'She was a quiet girl but she was happy. She had friends in the village when she was younger. Later on, she was a bit of an outsider because she was at college and most of the girls around here are married by the time they're 20, or they go off to be migrant workers.' Wang has been mostly incapacitated since Liu's death. 'I'm still recovering,' she says. She doesn't get up from the bed that dominates the stone-floored main room of the house where she and her husband live. They have few possessions - a small television and an old DVD player - while an ageing Mickey Mouse calendar is the only decoration on the walls. Wang cries constantly. It's her husband, a tall, dignified man with the tanned face and hands of someone who spends his life outdoors, who digs out Liu's diary and the photos of her from the drawer of a tatty wooden dresser. 'She was an excellent student,' he says. 'She won a scholarship to the best school in Wei county because of her high scores. It was a big honour for the family.' Like his wife, he was keen for his daughter to attend college. But they knew that when Liu went to Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital, to study for a three-year degree in computer science at Shijiazhuang College, they could not rely on state support to pay the 9,000 yuan a year tuition fees. With an annual income of between 10,000 yuan and 15,000 yuan from growing cotton on their land, he decided something drastic had to be done. 'I left the farm for my wife to run and went to Shanghai to work on a construction site. And we took my son out of school. He was good at studying too but we couldn't afford to have two children at college and school. My son said, 'I'll work, let Liu Wei study'.' Liu was quiet and self-contained around her family but poured out her feelings in her diary. In an entry from her first year of college, she wrote: 'At school, I had a scholarship but now my family has to pay for me to study. I have to pay them back and I have to give money to my brother so he can build a house. My goal is to study hard, get a good job and provide for my family. If I cannot do that, then it's impossible to say that I have a good life.' The contents of Liu's diary have come as a shock to her father. 'As early as that first year she felt the pressure of the financial burden on us,' he says, with downcast eyes. Even though Liu was given an annual grant of 5,000 yuan by the Wei county government at the start of her second year, the family struggled to find the balance of the tuition fees and to give Liu a living allowance. At the end of her second year, Liu started to look for a job in earnest. She attended her first job fair last June. It was a dispiriting occasion. 'There were 10 times more students than there were companies,' she wrote. 'After pushing through the crowds, I finally got the chance to speak to a human resources manager. But all he was looking for were sales and promotion staff, which is not suitable for me at all. I came home feeling very stressed.' Liu's experience is a common one. At the Haidian District IT Job Fair in Beijing this month, students who will graduate in the coming weeks came from as far away as Harbin, in the northeast, clutching copies of their CVs and surrounding booths manned by overwhelmed representatives of software and IT companies. 'There are 38 students in my class and only seven have got confirmed job offers,' says Guo Zhenzhen, a 22-year-old e-commerce student from Beijing's Capital University of Economics and Business. 'I've applied for at least 300 jobs and been to 10 job fairs. I've had about 20 replies and been to a few interviews but they just say, 'We'll be in touch'.' For Guo and her classmates, the scarcity of jobs is the dominant topic of conversation. 'I'm afraid of being unemployed when I graduate. It's a lot of pressure because I know my family will worry. They try to reassure me but the main pressure is from me. I feel I should be able to find a job after four years of studying and I want to start paying my parents back as soon as I can,' says Chen Meijun, a friend of Guo. In an attempt to deal with the growing unemployment crisis, Beijing is encouraging graduates to sign up as teachers and cunguan, village officials, in remote rural areas, especially in the west. In a speech on May 4 to students in the capital, President Hu Jintao urged them to work at the grassroots level, a sign of how anxious the government is about the destabilising effect of millions of unemployed graduates joining the estimated 25 million migrant workers who have lost their jobs in recent months. Few students, though, seem willing to move to the west, despite incentives such as having part of their loans paid off. 'A lot of the government jobs are more like volunteer work than real jobs,' says Chen. 'The salaries are so low that they're more like compensation than pay. And the contracts are long.' Nor is the prospect of leaving the cities all that attractive to students who have been brought up to believe that a university degree is a passport out of the countryside. 'The government should be doing more, especially this year because of the financial crisis,' says Zhang Haigang, who is about to graduate with a degree in computer science from Harbin Industrial University. 'They should be providing more opportunities for us to do internships so we can get work experience. That's what the companies who are still hiring want.' BECOMING A TEACHER or a cunguan was far from Liu Wei's mind by the start of her final year. A new note of despair at her failure to find a job shows in her entries after September last year. 'My pride is too strong. I care too much about myself. I chose to go to college instead of becoming a migrant worker but now my family have huge debts and I can do nothing for them. If I was working, I could send money home and bring gifts for my parents like the other children in the village. I have spent lots of their money and not even learned anything useful that will get me a job. Now, I regret my choice to study,' Liu wrote on September 2. Later that month, she found an internship in the sales department of a washing-machine manufacturer in Shijiazhuang. It was not a success. Liu claimed she lacked the skills in communication needed to be a useful sales representative. The effect of that failure was profound; by October, her diary entries had become utterly despondent. 'I am a college student but I cannot find a job. How ashamed will I be when I have to go back to my village after I graduate?' she wrote on October 9. 'I feel so tired. I want to keep sleeping and never wake up. What shall I do? Who can save me? Apart from my parents, I will not miss anything in this world.' Nine days later, the last entry in Liu's diary consisted of just three words: 'Why so difficult?' Yet at this stage, her parents had no inkling of how depressed Liu was. Her father feels her teachers should have noticed how vulnerable she was and done something to help. After her death, he wrote to Shijiazhuang College asking for an explanation of their failure to monitor Liu. Their response was a letter in which they claimed, 'what happened to your daughter isn't relevant to us'. 'They tried to evade all responsibility,' says Liu Shangyun. 'No one from the school came to her funeral.' Shijiazhuang College couldn't be contacted for comment but, like all universities and colleges on the mainland, it suffers from a lack of resources and funding. That is a direct consequence of Beijing's decision in 1999 to expand the higher education system, in an effort to encourage social mobility. The percentage of school leavers enrolling in colleges and univer-sities has jumped from less than 10 per cent in 1998 to 23 per cent. It is the universities and colleges, rather than the government, though, that have had to shoulder the cost of that expansion, leaving them 500 billion yuan in debt, according to a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Under-funded and overwhelmed, both the quality of teaching and the pastoral care of the students has declined. Liu Shangyun realised how ill his daughter was when one of her roommates called him in late December. 'She hadn't come back to their dorm one night and her roommate found her sitting in an empty, dark classroom. Liu Wei told her that the dorm was too crowded and she wanted to study alone. Her roommate was worried and called me, so I went to Shijiazhuang to see her. She was very skinny, she hadn't been eating properly, so I brought her back with me. But even then I didn't realise just how depressed she was. She seemed calm.' That trip home would be the last time the Lius would see their daughter alive. 'She helped her mother a lot but she didn't say much. When we asked her if anything was wrong, she just said, 'Don't worry, I'm OK,'' says Liu Shangyun. In early January, she returned to Shijiazhuang. 'She seemed normal again. A few days later she called and said she would be spending the first few days of the winter holiday with her roommate's family. But when she hadn't arrived home after three days, I went to her roommate's house, she wasn't there. She'd never gone there.' No one knows where Liu was for those days: the rest of her life. Frantic with worry, her father contacted the police, who put out a message asking units to take her home if she was spotted. She had been missing for 12 days when a witness saw her jump into a ditch near the long-distance bus station in Wei county at 3pm on January 23. Perhaps the effect of the freezing water shook Liu out of her despair, or maybe it was the basic human instinct for survival, but she fought to stay alive once she was in the ditch. 'People tried to rescue her. They held out a long stick but it was so cold she couldn't hang onto it. But she did try to grab it,' says her father. Finally, the fire department arrived and got her out. But she was already dead. No one knew who she was. She wasn't carrying any identification. It would be another 23 agonising days before the family learned what had happened, after a relative saw a television report about an unknown young woman who had died. Her father went to identify her body. He refuses to criticise the authorities. Instead, he blames himself and Shijiazhuang College for not recognising her fragile emotional state. But Liu Weizhang, an old family friend, is more forthright about the way the young woman was trapped between her dreams and the harsh reality. 'Should the country take some responsibility for Liu Wei's death? I couldn't say they don't have any responsibility, because if she was born into a middle-class family her tuition wouldn't have been a burden. It's very different in the countryside. It's hard for a farmer's child to go to college,' he says. For the Liu family, ambition resulted in tragedy. All they have are memories of the daughter who wanted only to better herself.