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People hold placards and cheer for students taking China's annual national college entrance exam in Huaibei, Anhui Province, China June 7, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Students who cheat during this year's university entrance exams in China risk for the first time being jailed, state media said on Tuesday, as the government tries to crack down on a pervasive problem for the highly competitive exams.

Cheaters will face up to seven years in jail and be banned from taking other national education exams for three years under an amendment to the Criminal Law, the official Xinhua news agency said.

"Educational authorities believe that by dangling the prospect of a harsh punishment in front of the test-takers, it will safeguard the fairness of the tests, widely seen as an important part of social justice," the popular tabloid the Global Times added.

The education ministry and police have repeatedly urged local governments to get serious about tackling the problem, and a crackdown has been launched to target wireless devices used to cheat and also the problem of substitute exam sitters, according to Xinhua.

The university exams, which began across the nation on Tuesday, are a moment of high stress in China, as millions of students compete for only a limited number of university places.

This year, 9.4 million high school students are expected to take the exam, known in China as the "gaokao".

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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