Russian president Vladimir Putin has expressed support for standardised school-leaving tests aimed at tackling corruption in higher education.
Mr Putin gave his backing for unified state exams that combine school matriculation with a scorecard for university entrance during a live nationwide television address last month. They would replace university entrance exams.
He said the full introduction of the exams, which are being piloted by the education ministry in 64 of Russia's 89 regions, would tackle deeply entrenched corruption in higher education and create a level playing field for university hopefuls.
First piloted in 2001, the exam was taken by 640,000 school- leavers during 2003, a figure that would rise to 900,000 in 2004, Mr Putin said.
"The exam is being introduced to give young people, especially those living in more remote regions, the chance to enter higher education through a simplified procedure," Mr Putin said.
He added that the introduction of the exam was a complex process that should not be hurried.
The exams would cover all core curriculum subjects, including Russian language and literature, foreign languages, maths, science and history.
Viktor Bolotov, first deputy minister of education, who is in charge of the pilot scheme, said the president's remarks were very significant.
"This will help us to continue our ongoing project quietly and without disturbance," Mr Bolotov said.
Many university rectors oppose the new exam scheme, fearing the loss of income from a black market in bribes and cash payments estimated to be worth as much as £1 billion a year.
"Some rectors are against it on practical grounds, others are against it on political grounds," Mr Bolotov said.
A parliamentary decision on continuing and expanding the pilot project was due to be taken later this year, he added.
Elena Lenskaya, assistant director for education and English-language training at the British Council, said: "Given the current political circumstances, the president's statement is very important; already there are signs of a shift in attitudes towards the unified state exams among university rectors."