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Plans by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to force private colleges to merge with vocational colleges have sparked campus protests across the country.

Chinese police said on Tuesday they had dispersed a protest of thousands of angry students at the privately owned Zhongbei College, which has until now been affiliated with Nanjing Normal University.

The students poured out onto the campus in the eastern province of Jiangsu on Sunday, detaining the college principal and trying to prevent police from getting close to him, the Danyang municipal police department said in a statement.

"To uphold campus order... public security organs took necessary measures in accordance with the law to remove the trapped person, and (the injured) were immediately sent to hospital for treatment," the police statement said.

However, photos circulating on social media showed police in riot gear using batons and pepper spray on students, with one woman bleeding from a head injury.

One Beizhong student told Agence France-Presse that around 3,000 students and 400 police were involved in the clashes.

"We were not arrested. The school hired auxiliary police who injured, beat, pepper-sprayed, threatened and verbally abused students," the student told AFP.

A video clip posted to Twitter showed dozens of police and security personnel shoving and yelling at students in a crowded school hall.

Another showed thousands of chanting undergraduates surrounded by lines of officers on a sports ground, as police dragged some out of the crowd.

The provincial education bureau said it had shelved plans to force Zhongbei College to merge with a vocational school, which would have changed the branding on the students' eventual degree certificates.

However, some banners were still visible on Zhongbei College campus on Tuesday.

Government censors swung into action on the social media site Weibo, with the hashtag #NanjingNormalUniversityZhongbeiCollegestudentsinjuredbyviolentlawenforcement# blocked on the site on Tuesday.

Similar protests were seen on the campus of Xinglin College linked to Nantong University, also in Jiangsu, and at Zhijiang College of Zhejiang University of Technology, RFA has learned.

Some students wrote on social media platforms that they were protesting the "downgrading" of their schools, citing high fees and entry requirements when they they applied to colleges that were at the time affiliated with high-ranking universities.

Retired Shanghai teacher Gu Guoping said he could understand their point of view.

"Vocational schools have a lower rank than these colleges," Gu said. "Are they now going be awarded college degrees or vocational degrees?"

A retired teacher surnamed Sun in the northeastern city of Harbin said the police use of force was likely intended to deter similar protests on college campuses.

"They are using violence to crack down on people standing up for their rights," Sun said. "Because if they didn't, this is only going to get bigger and bigger."

"But [the authorities] caused the conflict in the first place, so it's their fault."

Reported by Cheng Yut Yiu and Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.