As Russia attempts to overhaul its education system, critics fear reforms will slam the door in the faces of many young people. Pieta Monks reports
Against almost universal opposition, Russian president Vladimir Putin's cash-strapped government is pushing through massive changes to the education system, unprecedented in scale since the 1917 revolution.
The impetus for change comes from the country's falling birth rate and its economic crisis. The government believes that training more middle managers and skilled workers could help to pull the country out of economic depression.
The changes include: higher education for all school-leavers; replacing student grants with a voucher system; introducing a sliding scale of tuition fees; extending the school-leaving age by two years; replacing university entrance exams with a common entrance exam; and altering school and university curricula by bringing in a more practical bias.
Other changes include: establishing a central quality-control commission; setting up boards of governors in all higher education institutions; and attracting private investment in higher education through a variety of tax-relief schemes.
The man credited with master-minding this programme is minister of economic development German Graf.
The huge fall in Russia's birth rate has influenced government policy in two main areas. First, because the number of children in Russian schools will fall by 33 per cent in the next two to three years, class size will be reduced from 40 children to 25.
Massive unemployment of school teachers, says the government, can be avoided only by extending the school period from ten to 12 years. During the past two years, students will specialise in either vocational or academic skills.
This will mean boys leave school at 18 and go straight into the army. At the moment there is a loophole in compulsory military service. If a young man is in full-time education on his 18th birthday, his army service is delayed until higher education is completed, when he goes in as a commissioned officer and for a shorter time.
A second consequence of falling student numbers will be that by 2009 the number of school-leavers will match the places available in higher education.
The government proposes that entrance exams to specific universities should be replaced by a common entrance exam. Everyone who takes the exam will be issued with government vouchers to a maximum value of 2,000 roubles (about £50) for those students with the best results or those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Individual universities would have the option of topping up this payment from money raised through commercial activities, or the student could take out a loan.
Students will be able to apply to any university, although the institution can decide whether or not to accept any application. However, there will be a return to the Soviet practice of guaranteed university places - with a guaranteed maximum grant for disadvantaged sections of the population. A sliding scale of tuition charges will also be introduced.
The government claims that these are democratic moves, because all school-leavers can go on to further or higher education. Students from the provinces will not have to travel far to take entrance exams and, therefore, the growing localisation of student catchment areas in Russia will cease.
Critics say the best universities, as always, will cream off the best students, and sink universities will be created, which will accept anybody with a voucher. Because of this, the private tuition system will remain.
Although the government claims that everyone will be able to go to university, with the majority of Russian families living below the poverty line, critics are unconvinced. Poor students, even with the maximum grant, will not be able to afford higher education - they would need to take out a loan at a fixed rate of interest, with little prospect of ever being able to pay it back if they go into teaching.
President Putin wants a system where every school leaver receives further or higher education, while abolishing universal grants and free education. There will be no extra state money. There will be minimal targeted help for poor students. This will not be enough.
Experience suggests that once grants are abolished and tuition fees introduced, the take-up of higher education opportunities from low-income groups might fall. Private finance will not plug the gap.
Far from increasing opportunities for young people, the ending of universally available education and grants, which has been a basic plank of Soviet and Russian society since 1917, will slam a door in their faces.
However, despite unanimous opposition from the All-Russian Union of Vice-Chancellors and others, nobody has any illusion about the implementation of the reforms.
"What can we do?" asked one academic, who did not want to be named. "It is a return to a dictatorship." But one without free education.
Pieta Monks is Russian coordinator of the open language programme at the University of North London.