The New Year is unlikely to be a happy one for thousands of Russian university teachers and students whose institutes are facing massive cuts and closures in 2013, following a controversial performance review. But some researchers are optimistic that despite the hardships, the most significant overhaul of Russia’s university system in living memory will help to improve science and innovation in the country.

The move reflects the determination of Russian authorities to end support for hundreds of under-achieving institutions and to concentrate funding in a smaller number of high-performing universities. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, demand for academic degrees has soared, and the number of public and private universities has doubled, to around 1,100. But Russia’s science output has not increased accordingly, and higher-education experts and employers have long voiced concerns over the poor quality of many university programmes. Insiders suggest that no more than 50 Russian institutions are up to international standards.

After his election as president in March, Vladimir Putin decreed an overhaul of higher education while promising to increase university funding gradually over the next decade (see Nature 483, 253–254; 2012). To identify weak universities, the Ministry of Science and Education commissioned an external audit of almost 600 public higher-education institutions. The results, leaked last month, made for depressing reading. Almost 500 of the institutions — 102 universities and 374 local branches — were found wanting, on the basis of criteria such as the quality of students, research intensity and productivity, and the amount of teaching space. About 40 of Russia’s top universities, already classed as elite institutions by the government, were not included in the review.

Twenty institutions, including the Moscow State University for the Humanities (MSUH) and the Moscow State Evening Metallurgical Institute, were found to be so severely below par that the auditors recommended that they should be either closed or merged with more proficient institutions. Around 100 other universities are to be maintained but need to “optimize” their teaching and research performance, the auditors said. The ministry has already asked these institutions to submit development plans outlining how they intend to improve their performance, and a decision will be made about their future in April.

The audit has created a stir among Russian academics. Critics say that niche universities such as the MSUH — which the reviewers have labelled ‘ineffective’ — concentrate on teaching rather than scientific research, so it was unfair to judge them on research performance. “One should have been more thoughtful in designing the criteria,” says Isak Froumin, a senior education specialist with the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow, and former leader of the World Bank education programme in Russia.

But several analysts and researchers contacted by Nature agree that science and innovation are likely to benefit as the reforms free up money to strengthen programmes in the surviving universities. “Russia needs better-trained university graduates and it needs more and stronger university research,” says Leonid Gokhberg, first vice-rector of the HSE and head of its Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge. “I think the proposed overhaul will be helpful in both respects.”

An educational bill likely to come into effect early next year should cement the reforms: it aims to reduce the number of universities even further. Meanwhile, Putin has promised a marked increase in academic salaries, as well as bonuses for special achievements in teaching and research. The Russian government also plans to carry out an audit in 2013 of the academic performance of private universities.

“Despite its shortcomings, this was an overdue exercise,” says Froumin. “The outcome may be painful for some universities but what counts more is that Russian students have a right to receive a decent education.”