When Michael Gove, the education secretary, announced in July that he wished to see a return to traditional assessment of A levels and suggested dropping the AS qualification, he justified this call for change by saying that universities wanted it. Almost immediately, Geoff Parks, the head of admissions at the University of Cambridge, made headlines by writing to Mr Gove to express his concerns. He argued that AS levels were an "invaluable indicator of progress" that helped decide admissions when many applicants are predicted top grades. It would appear that Mr Gove did not actually consult universities before making his suggestion.
His intentions were, however, excellent: to make the A level more academically rigorous and to revive "the art of deep thought". And he could be forgiven for thinking that universities did want the qualification overhauled: every new academic year brings fresh complaints of students arriving at university garlanded with A levels but unready for undergraduate study. And every summer reignites claims that ever easier A levels are fuelling grade inflation.
But the question of whether the standard is the same as it was 30 years ago misses the point, says Andrew Hall, head of the exam board AQA. What we should be asking is how our school-leavers compare to those from Singapore, India and Brazil. When many students in the UK come from overseas, universities need an international comparison.
What all the noise and confusion comes down to is whether the A level is simply a demonstration of achievement at school or whether it should also be preparation for university. When nearly 80 per cent of pupils with the qualification go on to higher education, it most certainly should serve as a scholarly boot camp, says Reform, a centre-right think tank. But if universities want students fit for the intellectual rigours of academia, why aren't they playing a bigger part in the design of the exam?
Mr Gove's thinking has been heavily influenced by a report from Sir Richard Sykes, former rector of Imperial College London. It underlines the fact that although universities are the main "clients" for A levels, they have little say in their content or assessment, this having shifted over the years from awarding bodies to successive government agencies, allowing ministers to meddle. And schoolteachers have taken the lead in dictating content, says Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a member of the Sykes review team. "You could argue that the whole process is very inward-looking, almost to the point of being incestuous in an educational sense," he says in our cover story.
But universities now have a golden opportunity. The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, the curriculum quango, is to be abolished. Should universities step in and take control?
Some have attributed universities' hands-off approach to a focus on research and academics' lack of time. But changes under way may force them to step up. The switch from public to private funding for teaching puts more power in the hands of the students who, if they use it wisely, will push for universities to shape the qualification that for many determines their entry to higher education and to end the constant devaluation of the currency of the A level and the relentless diminution of their efforts.