Russian academics' fears that the university system will be weakened by a government drive to restructure it have been dismissed by officials in Moscow.
Moves to streamline Russia's hotch-potch of higher education and training institutes have been taking place in pilot projects at 15 regional universities over the past four years.
But with President Boris Yeltsin's call for the training of thousands of business-oriented managers, tighter federal purse-strings and the appointment earlier this year of a new education minister, Alexander Tikhonov, university reform has moved up a gear.
This year a further 12 higher education institutes in Moscow, Rostov, Bryansk and Samara will be amalgamated to form four unitary institutes, saving costs through sharing staff, resources and combining faculties where courses are duplicated.
The shake-up in higher education has alarmed some academics in Moscow, where rumours are spreading that Mr Tikhonov's reforms will lead to a three-tier system in which only the elite universities, such as Moscow State, St Petersburg State and Bauman Technical University, Moscow, will retain current funding levels.
One professor predicted that "higher education in Russia will consist of the top tier of old, classical universities with staff-student ratios at 1:5, a middle level of mostly regional or technical institutes with budgets reduced by 15 per cent and staffing ratios down to 1:8, and a bottom level of training colleges funded by poverty-stricken regional governments".
But education ministry officials insist that such rumours have little basis in reality. Restructuring Russia's unwieldy university system is essential, they say, if costly duplication and inefficiencies are to be scrapped.
Yuri Novikov, head of the education ministry's directorate of higher professional institutions, said: "Restructuring the university system is an evolutionary process, affecting only those institutions where change is needed. In the United States and Europe they have universities of 20,000 or more students. Now in Russia we are going to amalgamate institutions and enlarge them so there will be fewer small institutions dotted all over the place."
Top universities such as Moscow State were already multilayered institutions and would be unaffected, Mr Novikov said, as would specific institutes such as Moscow's famous music college or VGIK, the All-Russian State Film Institute.
The minister said that the benefits would outweigh disadvantages and insisted that no academic staff would lose their jobs and that natural wastage would take care of excess numbers of technical staff.
The moves effectively strengthen the hand of regional university rectors, where restructuring will frequently mean larger institutions absorbing smaller, hitherto independent agricultural, technical or pedagogical colleges.
Dimitri Troubetskov, rector of Saratov State University, where integration with two local teacher training institutes is taking place, said that overall restructuring was a positive process, leading to better use of shared resources.
"The main task is to cancel duplication and make more productive use of staff and allow for the introduction of new courses."
The minister said: "The idea is not to reduce the numbers of higher education institutions as such, but to raise the level of education. If a pedagogical institute, for example, becomes part of an university structure, the level of teacher training will be raised."