03/04/2012 16:45 BST

University Academics Losing Confidence In 'Shallow' Students, Report Says

A culture of re-sits, bitesize exams and schools drilling pupils to pass tests is leaving many new students floundering at university, a new report warns.

Academics are losing faith in the abilities of first-year undergraduates, many of who have a "shallower" knowledge than in the past, according to research by the exams watchdog, Ofqual.

It indicates that some academics and teachers would like to see a return to more traditional A-levels, with pupils sitting fewer "module" papers throughout the course.

The report came on the day that education secretary Michael Gove confirmed that he intends to give universities, particularly the most elite institutions, "a far greater role" in designing A-levels in the future.

The announcement was met with some concerns from headteachers and universities, with one union leader dismissing it as a "quick fix gimmick", the Press Association reported.

Ofqual's report is based on interviews with university academics and employers and discussion groups with A-level teachers.

It found that many academics do not think that new students have the skills needed for degree study, such as researching, essay writing and references, with some graduates lacking the levels of English and maths required.

Academics at selective universities told researchers that they have "less faith in the abilities of first-year undergraduates than they used to."

Despite an increase in A-level grade, and higher numbers gaining first-class degrees, universities are not reporting "a comparative increase in the abilities of first-year undergraduates," it says.

"If anything, students' theoretical subject knowledge was said to have grown broader but shallower."

The academics interviewed also raised concerns about pupils "learning to the test" - being drilled to pass exams.

As a result of this, new students fail to take control of their own degree studies because they are used to being told how to pass an exam.

Teachers told researchers that a "re-sit culture" had been damaging to students, because they approached exams believing that they will always get a second chance at it.

As a result, many academics said first-year university students struggled because they were not able to retake an exam to boost their grade.

The report said that their discussions with teachers suggested that teachers would welcome a return to more "linear" A-levels, in which pupils sit their exams at the end of their two-year course, rather than modular courses in which pupils sit exams in "bitesize" chunks or units throughout.

Some university academics also said that traditional A-levels gave pupils more time to read around their subject "without worrying about being assessed on everything that they learn."

Ofqual concludes: "A move away from modular assessment - although not necessarily to a full two-year linear model - would foster an environment where students are more able to develop synoptic learning and allow more space for teachers to focus on skills and subject narrative."

The report also found that those interviews did not usually advocate a total ban on re-sits, but did think that there should be a fixed number of times that a student could re-take a paper."

In a letter to Glenys Stacey, chair of Ofqual, Mr 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 decisions such as subject matter and style.

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 Mr Gove has repeated the policy since taking office two years ago.

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."

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), warned that preparing students for university is just one aspect of A-levels.

He said: "The number of 18-year-olds taking A-levels has increased sharply and many use them as a springboard for apprenticeships, employment-based training or entering the workforce.

"It may be that university departments need to look at other ways of assessing applicants which don't rely as heavily on A-level grades. That is what employers do.

"I fear that some of Mr Gove's concerns are based on an unrealistic expectation of what an examination can accomplish. Academic achievement is not synonymous with employability skills, and a good education must provide both."

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of million+, a university think tank which also represents a group of newer institutions, said: "This is a much more complex task than simply getting a few academics together, especially when you bear in mind the huge range of subjects and courses.

"At a meeting with representatives from across higher education, ministers were advised very clearly that universities did not consider that the A-level system was 'broken'.

"Education ministers appear to have ignored this advice and by promoting reform without any additional funding the costs of involving academics are likely to be passed onto schools by the exam boards."

In his letter to Ofqual, Mr Gove said he would like to see the new university-led A-levels available for first teaching in September 2014.

"I want to see new arrangements that allow awarding organisations to work with universities to develop qualifications in a way that is unconstrained - as far as possible - by centrally determined criteria," Mr Gove said.

Previously, the now defunct Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, with involvement from government, set the criteria for A-levels which exam boards then used to develop the qualifications.

The move to put A-levels in the hands of universities is likely to lead to the qualifications being toughened up and could even lead to changes to AS-levels, which are taken by teenagers after one year of A-level study.

Mr Gove's letter says that his discussions with academics and school and college leaders on A-levels have left him concerned "about the impact of the current modular structure on students' education".

He asks for views on A-level modules, including AS-levels, and the impact of re-sits.

Speaking at the ATL annual conference in Manchester, Max Nielsen, a senior examiner in German from West Sussex, said: "I think he (Mr Gove) seems to want to abolish the AS and have a two-year term with an exam, and that's all he wants."

He said that if students do not sit AS-levels "there's a danger that you're a complete failure at the end of two years".

AS-levels allow students to find out earlier if they are struggling with a subject.

"I think it's good they find out after a year rather than two years," he said.