BEIJING - A TOP official in north-west China has defended an education reform plan that has sparked protests by Tibetan students over concerns their mother-tongue is being sidelined.

Thousands of school students demonstrated in Qinghai province this week in anger at plans to force them to study in the Chinese language, rights groups said. The demonstrations were also reported by the official Xinhua news agency.

The unrest spread to Beijing on Friday, where around 400 Tibetan students studying at Minzu University staged a demonstration, Free Tibet reported.

Tibetan blogger and activist Woeser said on her Twitter account that a Tibetan-style dance normally organised every Friday on campus had been cancelled. The protests were sparked by a reform plan that focuses on Chinese as the main language of instruction and downgrades Tibetan to a language class.

Wang Yubo, head of the Qinghai education department, said Friday that the plan aimed to boost both Chinese and the native languages of minorities. 'The plan is aimed at strengthening whatever is weaker and the purpose is not to use one language to weaken another,' he was quoted as saying in the report late on Friday.

According to Free Tibet, news of the reform is spreading across the Tibetan region via text message. 'Tibetan students are protesting for their mother-tongue in the Tibetan areas in Qinghai and others,' the text reads, according to the rights group. According to Xinhua, the new measures aim to help ensure students from ethnic minorities have a good command of both Chinese and their own languages by designating Chinese as the language of instruction.

China official defends reform