Russia is to introduce a single, nationwide combined school leaving and university entrance examination next year, education minister Vladimir Filippov has confirmed.
In a television interview, he said the exam would not only streamline admissions, but would also benefit students living in remote areas, who often cannot afford to travel to their university of choice to sit the entrance exam.
Mr Filippov said that a two-year pilot scheme would be introduced in 2001 and among the options being considered was an online examination.
Despite the huge expansion of higher education by the Soviet Union, no attempt was made to introduce a clearing-house system. And all the country's universities traditionally held their examinations at the same time, giving school-leavers only one shot a year at obtaining a university place.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, attempts were made to stagger the admissions process, with a handful of the most prestigious universities holding their examinations a month earlier than the rest.
Under his proposals, Mr Filippov explained, students would not have to travel at all. They would simply "send their exam results to any five or ten universities: the best universities would take the best students and the average universities, the average students".
He said the new scheme would also confront problems of corruption within the system. Currently, underpaid academics are all too vulnerable to bribes offered by anxious parents, while universities wishing to augment their income offer fee-paying courses and top-up tutoring to students who fail their entrance exam. There are also persistent rumours that the children of wealthy parents are being deliberately failed by universities so that they can charge extra fees.
Mr Filippov noted that some families who can afford it do not bother to enter their children for the exam, enrolling them directly on fee-paying courses instead.
Mr Filippov did not explain who would conduct and mark the new examination. School-leaving examinations in Russia have always been set and marked by the schools themselves - one of the reasons that the universities insisted on having their own entrance qualification.
In a country the size of Russia, the logistics of a single nationwide examination are frightening. Even an online examination would require considerable human resources to administer.
Mr Filippov suggested that several other options are under discussion. But whatever scheme is chosen, for the next two years at least university applicants will not have to travel to sit examinations.
This must come as particularly good news for the University of Grozny in Chechnia. At the beginning of August, it was seeking to defer the start of its academic year for a few weeks because renewed hostilities were making it impossible for prospective students to attend the entrance examination.