Germany's system for allocation of university places could collapse following the withdrawal of one of the country's most powerful states.
Baden-Württemberg has decided to terminate its contract with the central office for the allocation of study places (ZVS) when it expires in 2005.
The ZVS allocates 80 per cent of the places in the 13 subjects in which student places are limited, including medicine, biology, architecture, economics and law. Allocation is based mainly on applicants' grades in their Abitur, the school-leaving certificate. But the ZVS also reserves places for students with lower Abitur grades who have put themselves on a waiting list.
Erwin Teufel, Baden-Württemberg's premier, said: "We want less bureaucracy and more freedom to make our own decisions. We want selection, not allocation."
He said self-selection would strengthen universities' responsibility for their students, promote competition between universities and give them the chance to develop distinctive profiles.
He added that self-selection would attract more motivated students and cut the high dropout rate in universities.
Baden-Württemberg hopes to persuade the other 15 German states to agree a new unified procedure for self-selection.
It has set up an expert working group to develop alternatives. It has also hired higher education legal expert Kay Hailbronner as a consultant to examine whether central allocation of study places is legitimate.
Baden-Württemberg, ruled by a conservative coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats, tried to introduce changes to the framework law on higher education to force nationwide self-selection earlier this year. But it won support from only four other conservative-led states.
North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, wants to maintain central allocation. Annually, the state receives 20,000 applications for 7,790 places available at 35 universities to study medicine.
It is concerned that if Baden-Württemberg pulled out of the central selection process, it would be able to cream off the best students.