A special Russian education ministry commission - dubbed the "quality police" by the press and feared by university rectors - is cracking down on corruption and low teaching standards.
The commission, set up by the ministry's department of licensing, accreditation and testing, has powers to close colleges that are not up to scratch.
Aleksandr Kirinyuk, deputy director of the licensing department, said: "Two private colleges lost their licences to teach and two branches of other colleges have been stripped of accreditation in the 18 months since the commission began its work, and a number of individual educational programmes have been closed."
The 50 members of the commission are drawn from the ranks of university rectors, ministry experts, high court and arbitration judges, and state prosecutors.
Mr Kirinyuk said the need for the commission had been dictated by the rapid expansion of private and state education in Russia in recent years, with the creation of some 380 private universities and 1,000 affiliated branches in addition to the existing 600 state universities. Rapid growth at a time when educational programmes and standards were in a state of flux had led to big discrepancies in the quality of provision.
"The main purpose of the commission is to check the quality of students'
knowledge against curriculum standards and to ensure teaching staff are up to standard and engaged in professional development," Mr Kirinyuk added.
The commissioners, sent out at short notice to about 60 universities and colleges during the year, draw up reports and recommend action. But it is up to education minister Vladimir Filippov to order any remedial action.
Colleges and courses that face the axe, such as the Upper Volga Institute for Business and Law in Tver, which was closed in April, or the Volgograd branch of the Belgorod Institute for Economics and Innovation, which was axed in June 2002, have a right to appeal.
"We give institutes with poor standards a year to improve and be retested, but they lose the right to award diplomas during this time," Mr Kirinyuk said.
Final-year students are transferred to other institutions. Full-time teachers lose their jobs while decisions about the careers of staff who are moonlighting from other universities are left to managers at their institutions.
If evidence of corruption - the selling of grades and exam passes or bribe-taking - is uncovered, the police or prosecutors are called in, but the main problem is moonlighting.
"Budget funds are just not sufficient to provide for decent salaries, and universities cannot compete with the private sector, for example, top scientists are often poached by oil or gas companies offering more than 100,000 roubles [£2,000] a month - ten times their university salary."
Alexander Lunev, rector of Astrakhan State University, which underwent an inspection in December, said: "This work is necessary to address issues about integration of Russian education with Europe's under the Bologna process, but we very much hope that the next visit of the commission is more pleasant for us."