03/04/2012 03:03 BST | Updated 03/04/2012 07:26 BST

Michael Gove: Universities Should Be Given The Power To Set A-Levels

Education Secretary Michael Gove has called for universities to have a "far greater" role in designing A-levels in the future, amid concerns that the qualifications are failing to prepare teenagers for university.

In a letter to the exams regulator Ofqual, Gove said that he did not envisage the Department for Education playing a part in developing A-levels in the future, adding he would like to see the new university-led A-levels available for first teaching in September 2014.

The Conservatives first said they planned to put universities, exam boards and professional societies in charge of creating A-levels before the last general election, and Gove has repeated the policy since taking office two years ago.

In his letter to Glenys Stacey, chair of Ofqual, Gove said that exam boards should be able to work with universities to develop qualifications. In return for greater freedom to design exams, boards will have to provide evidence of which universities have been involved in decision such as subject matter, and style of questions.

"I will expect the bar to be a high one: university ownership of the exams must be real and committed, not a tick-box exercise", he writes.

A Labour Party spokesperson said it was important to have a "trusted" system: "Our exams must have the confidence

of parents, teachers, employers and higher education."

The news comes amid claims universities are being forced to lay on remedial classes for new undergraduates because many are struggling to write essays, use grammar and punctuation and build arguments.

According to a study by Cambridge Assessment too much "teaching to the test" in schools - drilling pupils to pass exams - is a "major factor" in pupils being unprepared for studying at degree level.

Cambridge Assessment's study, based on an 18-month research programme that included a survey of 633 higher education lecturers and roadshows, found that more than half of lecturers think that undergraduates are unprepared for degree-level study.

Three fifths (60%) said that their universities are providing extra "support" classes for under-prepared first-year students, usually focusing on writing and independent learning. Nearly three quarters (72%) of those questioned said that they have changed their teaching styles for students who are not ready for university study.

Students can have trouble structuring essays, with spelling, punctuation and grammar, referencing and citing sources, building arguments, conducting research, and evaluating information, the study found. But they are most prepared in terms on the ICT skills, ability to work in teams and in presentation and communication skills.

The findings, due to be presented at a conference on Tuesday, say that academics want A-levels to include more advanced content for bright students, cover subjects in more depth and encourage critical thinking, independent study, experimentation and more extensive reading.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR exam board, which is part of Cambridge Assessment, said: "Recognising the need to strengthen links with universities and other HE institutions, the research programme is one of the ways we are increasing HE's role in the design, development and evaluation of A-levels and other qualifications."

But union leaders have hit out at the plans saying they are a "quick fix gimmick".

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: "This sounds like a quick fix gimmick from Michael Gove.

"Of course universities have a useful role to play in deciding what should be tested at A-level, but A-levels need to test more than just the ability to go to university. A-levels need to test students' skills and help prepare them for the world of work and daily life as well as to study further."