There was a time when engineer David Robb had few problems selecting the best applicants by their A-level scores, confident that he would get the best possible quality of undergraduates. Few had the straight A grades that are commonplace today, but, says Robb, they had a level of knowledge in maths and the study skills that equipped them to master their degree courses right from the outset.
A quarter of a century later, Robb, admissions tutor in mechanical engineering and chair of the undergraduate admissions committee at Imperial College London, has all but given up on A levels for selection purposes. He prefers instead to comb through applicants' personal statements for that elusive something that sets a candidate apart from the A-grade uniformity. He then interviews those who catch his eye before making his offers.
Despite this painstaking process, Robb finds that students often lack the deep knowledge - of maths, in this case - that 25 years ago would have been commonplace. Eight years ago, Imperial replaced its three-year BEng with a four-year MEng because, as Robb puts it, "half the first year is taken up with remedial teaching".
Robb's experience is not unique. It is illustrative of a widespread and fundamental failure on the part of secondary education in the UK to produce young people with the knowledge and skills required for university. Almost every university now runs remedial courses and/or an assortment of essay-writing and study skills modules, largely for first-year students. Traditional three-year courses at English universities have been extended to four years to accommodate the extra time the remedial work takes in the first year.
It is a huge and pernicious shift in the role of universities. Academics are increasingly frustrated that they are now expected to do work that, they say, ought to be done in schools by teachers. And it is not just an A-level problem but one that also seems to affect Scottish schools and their Higher qualifications.
A heartfelt plea from one academic at the University of Abertay Dundee sums up the feelings of many colleagues north and south of the border: "If the job of an academic now includes parts of what used to be done by teachers in schools, then please tell us and we'll get on with it."
The sentiment is familiar to Lin Norton, professor of pedagogical research and dean of learning and teaching at Liverpool Hope University. "I think there is a great deal of frustration among academics that they are being asked to pick up the pieces," she says. "Higher education is changing so very fast that certainly the people who have been lecturing for years say, 'It is not my role to provide foundation-level teaching.'"
Many academics fear a permanent shift in their roles and responsibilities. They believe that unless something is done now about this dislocation between UK schools and universities, it is likely that the situation will deteriorate. Both sectors have their own agendas, which may serve to drive them further apart.
Academics such as Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King's College London, understand the longer-term dangers. "I don't know where we go from here. I think the divorce between school and university curriculums has become more marked rather than less. And I think that's just a factor of time. It is a continental drift," she says.
"My impression is that for the sciences and languages and maths there is a growing problem. I do not think it is just people being hung up on the good old days, but there are real issues on abilities."
The Government's desire to take participation in higher education up to, and eventually beyond, 50 per cent of the UK population means that very soon the main job of schools will be to produce people ready to progress to and benefit from higher education.
It would be reasonable to expect that schools and universities were already working together to develop a 14-to-19 curriculum that ensures that the type of students produced by the former are the sort required by the latter. But although schools and universities work well together in areas such as widening participation, schools' educational priorities remain defined by a national curriculum and an assessment process that, according to critics, does little in any practical sense to ease students' transition to tertiary education.
Teachers complain that the assessment process and the resulting school league tables generate a "pass at all costs" culture in which pupils are spoon-fed the information they need to pass a given exam and make their school look good in the league tables.
Barbara Hibbert, head of history at Harrogate Grammar School, was awarded a PhD a year ago for research into the experiences of pupils who left school to study history at university. "I interviewed a group of students studying A-level history and then reinterviewed them when they were studying history at university. In the sixth form they thought they were thinking independently, but when they got to university they realised that they had been spoon-fed," Hibbert says.
"If the Government wants more young people to get their A levels, then that is what teachers will deliver," she says. "The examination system now means that we are not allowed to let children fail at A level. We have to nurse them through, and this does not encourage critical thinking."
Sandy Gilks, head of the Centre for Academic Practice at the University of Northampton, says: "The school and university curriculums have become detached. It took a while for universities to realise that schools had changed and to realise that students were different."
“I don't know where we go from here. I think the divorce between school and university curricula has become more marked rather than less”
Others agree but argue that the onus should be on universities to do more. Vicky Tuck, principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College, says: "The criticism of students in general is that they lack experience of self-directed learning. And there is no doubt that league tables and learning for the sake of exams has led to a bite-sized approach to learning.
"Some of our girls go to university and find it disappointing. They think it flimsy. While they appreciate that they must do personal research and take control of their own learning, they still expect to be stimulated. But with the strongly academic universities, this doesn't really happen. Professors are obliged to concentrate on research in order to ensure continued funding from the research assessment exercise, so teaching suffers."
In 1980, UK universities educated about 20 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds, most of whom were school-leavers. They now cater for about 44 per cent of the same age group, and this is set to rise to 50 per cent in little over ten years. As a result of this shift, universities are expected to cater increasingly for a far broader spectrum of abilities.
More change in higher education is imminent. By the end of the decade, it is likely that there will be a significant rise in the cost of university tuition in England, which is now capped at Pounds 3,000 a year, for home students and those from other European Union states. This will encourage keener competition between institutions seeking to differentiate themselves in the market, in part, through the types of courses and learning they offer.
Add to this the myriad opportunities for universities to exploit the skills agenda, as set out recently in the Leitch report, and it is clear that the meaning and nature of a university is becoming more elastic. Some suggest that the universities of tomorrow promise to be as different from each other as the universities, polytechnics and higher education institutions were a generation ago.
Gilks, who set up her centre in 1991 to improve student skills that seemed to be lacking even then, believes schools can now only do so much to prepare pupils for university. "It is not just a case of going back to what was before. I do not believe that schools can prepare for everything at university now because the university system has diversified so much."
"I support mass higher education, but it generates problems that must be addressed," says Sue Hatt, regional widening participation manager for the South West at the University of the West of England. "I do not think we can do the same with 40 or 50 per cent in higher education that we did with 20 per cent. We need a different sort of higher education system for society than we have now and the society we are going to have."
Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, says a rethink on the length of the English and Welsh university degree is inevitable as a consequence of mass participation and changes in schooling.
"Moving from 5 or 10 per cent of the age group to 50 per cent (at university) means that we are clearly dipping into a much wider spectrum of abilities," he says. "We need a two-pronged approach. We need to get away from three-year degrees because that was dependent on the previous system. And the Government needs to be persuaded that turning exam scores into a product and judging schools by them is not a good way of improving education."
Some, such as Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, see universities as the real problem and the debate over school standards as something of a red herring. "I'm not gloomy about the so-called collapse in standards," he says. "I think the real lunacy is in the dishonesty about what kind of university system we've got. This makes it impossible for schools to gear what they do to the needs of the university system."
But for most academics it is hard not to conclude that students are somehow "not what they used to be", especially when A-level pass rates are taken into account. Even in the decade 1996 to 2006, the pass rate at grades A to E increased from 85 per cent to 97 per cent. The proportion of those pupils receiving A grades rose from 16 per cent to 24 per cent.
Robb says: "A levels were designed as a pre-filter for university. But 25 years ago, the format changed and the A level became an aim or a goal in its own right.
"You can look at A-level exams of 20 years ago and today and they look fairly similar. But check the text and you can see that the older papers said 'Here's a problem - solve it' while the new ones say 'Do this calculation, do that, do the other and at the end announce that now you've solved the problem'. Absolute standards are dropping, there is no doubt about that."
Alice Rogers, professor of mathematics at King's College London and vice-president of the London Mathematical Society, says many degrees at English universities, including maths-based courses, have already been extended to four years to accommodate remedial or foundation-level work in the first year.
"Maths is now assessed in schools in short questions using standard routines. Combine this with league tables and you get people trained to answer questions without really understanding them. I don't think I'd particularly criticise schools because the pressure they are under to get A grades is pretty strong. I am not sure that blame is the right thing. Some are unintended consequences."
Steve Furness, summer school co-ordinator for AimHigher in the southwest based at the University of the West of England, works to encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education. The sort of students Furness helps recruit are more likely than their confident middle-class peers to drop out if they are unprepared for and feel unable to cope with university study.
“In the sixth form students thought they were thinking independently, but when they got to university they realised that they had been spoon-fed”
"What we get - and this is anecdotal - is that very often A-level students are less well prepared," he says. "There is a question to ask of schools about the extent to which the teaching of A levels is developing a knowledge base and preparing young people for being self-directed learners."
Some, such as Dylan Wiliam, professor of educational assessment at the Institute for Education, say that A levels have not necessarily become easier but that changes in policy mean that the qualifications no longer measure what they used to measure - something, he says, that many universities still fail to understand fully.
"Exams became more predictable. Teachers did more and more of the work in the classroom, but that deskilled the kids," he says. "A levels that used to mean you were a self-starter and/or very bright came to mean, in some cases, that you had a good teacher who helped you get through.
"In short, A levels did not get easier but what one could infer from them changed. Universities started to take people who could not cope with the curriculum, and they have still not realised that you cannot push all kids through the same kind of curriculum that they did 20 years ago."
Such is the concern over educational achievement in schools that, last summer, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced the creation of the National Council for Educational Excellence. The body, which comprises representatives from universities, schools and business, is charged with seeking ways to improve performance in schools.
"I believe this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rectify the gap," says Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter and member of the council, "and to make sure that schools and universities are working together to help learners."
Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and a fellow member of the council, adds: "For once it's about the totality of the education system. It's about whether we are stretching kids at the top end and what we can do to help at the bottom end."
There is similar excitement about diplomas, which were announced in 2005 as part of the Government's planned reform of the 14-to-19 curriculum. They aim to create a flexible framework into which qualifications can be loaded but one that will always include core knowledge in English, maths and IT - something that may go some way towards meeting universities' concerns.
Advanced-level extended projects will be available from this year in both A levels and diplomas. Such projects are an attempt to address concerns about students' depth knowledge and study skills.
Diplomas were conceived initially as a more vocationally oriented qualification. So it was a surprise to many when the Department for Children, Schools and Families announced last October that there would be another three general education diplomas: in science, languages and the humanities. Some dismissed this as a further doomed attempt to supersede A levels as the "gold standard" academic qualification. But others, including many in higher education, have welcomed the new diplomas, not least because academics are involved in their design.
Mike Tomlinson, the Government's diploma champion for schools and colleges, says: "Universities are expected to take a significant lead. There is a sense that joined-up thinking will be renewed. What is clear is that if we continue as we are, there will remain a lot of people who think the education system is not delivering what it should be delivering."
Kevin Morris, on secondment to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority from Canterbury Christ Church University, where he is a senior lecturer in the education faculty, says: "One of my jobs at the QCA is to engage with vice-chancellors, and I am overwhelmed by the support for and engagement with diplomas. Diplomas are the summation of all the debate we have had."
Back at Imperial, Robb is less convinced. "We had a visit from the Royal Society of Engineering, and they are trying to persuade us that we should use the diploma," he says.
"But I don't want schools to be selling the diploma to prospective students (by) saying, 'Do this and you can get into Imperial to do engineering.' I would rather rely on my own judgment at the moment."
Even if diplomas become accepted currency, it won't happen overnight. Until then, academics and universities have to make their own assessments and do what is best for them and their students.
As Wes Streeting, vice-president for education at the National Union of Students, puts it: "Yes, the school examinations culture in the UK does not lend itself to self-driven exploration of ideas and knowledge. But in the interim period I think universities need to give serious thought to how to address this situation. What we cannot have is students turning up with the potential to succeed but drowning in their first year because they do not have the study skills."
“Universities have still not realised that you cannot push all kids through the same kind of curriculum that they did 20 years ago”
Part of the educational compact in the UK used to mean that universities worked closely with schools to ensure that the curriculum was designed to produce young people ready to slot seamlessly into university life. It shored up an elitist system, but it worked. Universities got what they wanted from students, and students knew what to expect from university.
That contract has been broken. Universities no longer play a major role in designing the school curriculum or exams. This is done now by the Government and executed through professional exam organisations that are overseen by a powerful quango, the QCA.
Schools operate in a "nationalised" education system controlled by the Government, the QCA and the exam bodies, critics argue. Their focus is to serve an educational industry that exists to produce initiatives, sell exam formats, carry out assessment and produce data for league tables.
"The big problem is that the Government has been mucking about with the national curriculum for such a long time that colleagues in schools have lost their way," says Steve Wharton, a senior lecturer in French and communication at the University of Bath.
"It is not the purpose of universities to make good deficiencies in students' learning. But people in schools have been told that knowledge comes in finite blocks. Kids are given notes, and all they have to do is regurgitate. We really need to stop all the change and have a sensible view on what's happening."
Bill Rammell, the Minister for Higher Education, acknowledges that there are concerns about students' preparedness for higher education. "What we cannot have is a school system that operates in its own way and a university system that operates in its own way," he says. "Should we be looking more at developing critical thinking skills? Yes, and that is where the extended A-level project is directed.
"In general, I think the idea of stronger partnerships between schools and universities and colleges is something we are pushing very strongly. But just as academics sometimes complain that students do not have enough critical thinking and problem-solving skills, exactly the same criticism is made by employers of graduates."
The minister has a point, but then the Government has no control over employers and what they say and do about graduates who fail to make the grade. That is for universities and employers to sort out. The Government can do something about the type of education delivered in its schools.
If the education delivered by the UK's schools is becoming less fit for the purposes of its universities, then the UK has a serious problem. Quite how the Government hopes to realise its expansion plans for higher education while the gap between schools and universities grows concerns many academics.
Kevin Stannard is director of international curriculum development at Cambridge University, which now offers its Pre-U qualification designed to equip young people with the sort of critical thinking and self-study skills that many academics see as missing from A levels.
"Through the late 1980s and the 1990s, the gap between academics and schools got wider and wider in terms of academics disengaging from exam boards. I think what we are living with now are the implications of that," he says. "What is the fallout if we fail to rectify this detachment? We could sell short a generation of young people. We have to give them so much more."
Many suspect that the Government is banking on the professionalism and good grace of academics to take up the educational slack between the two sectors. But academics already grumble about their new role as surrogate teachers. After all, why go into academe to spend a considerable amount of your life teaching basic maths or grammar?
Stannard is blunt: "You have two options as a university: put up your own tests or you can try to do something with 16-to-19 qualifications."
The vast majority of academics do not blame their colleagues in schools for the increasing mismatch between secondary and tertiary education. On the contrary, they believe it is the inevitable outcome of decades of Government policy that has focused relentlessly on grades and league tables. This has combined with an obsession on the part of universities with research and the fragmentation of the entire university system into discrete institutions with differing priorities, leaving teachers unsure about what universities require from prospective students.
Many experts believe the Government now has an opportunity to mend the fracture between our education systems. Diplomas may be part of that solution. If they are not, the answer will have to lie with the universities themselves. And their likely response - longer degrees, more tailored admissions tests, or both - may not be one that either the Government or students would wish to hear.
Key moments leading to the parting of ways between schools and universities
1959: The Crowther report recommends comprehensive schooling, but it is not until the late 1960s and 1970s that the system becomes the norm in most parts of the UK. This shifts the concept of secondary education - in the process upsetting the historic compact between public schools, grammar schools and universities.
1963: The publication of the Robbins report on the future of higher education sparks the first significant expansion of higher education in decades. This begins the process of diversification within higher education, a change that today can leave schools, teachers and pupils confused about what universities want from them.
1986: The first research assessment exercise refocuses universities' and academics' attentions on the importance of research - to the detriment of teaching, some argue. It meant that universities had less time for the school curriculum.
1988: The Education Reform Act introduces the national curriculum for schools, gives more power to school governors and allows schools to opt out of local authority control. This begins what some describe as the "nationalisation" of the school curriculum.
1992: The Further and Higher Education Act abolishes the division between universities and polytechnics.
1997: The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority opens for business. Some see its creation as confirmation of a nationalisation of the curriculum that had been under way for much of the previous decade.
1998: The introduction of Pounds 1,000-a-year tuition fees for home and other European Union undergraduates. Some say the move fuels the "bums on seats" approach to university admissions and leads to a decline in entry standards. It also introduces the concept of the student as consumer.
2003: White Paper introduces tuition fees of up to Pounds 3,000 a year, which adds to the competition for students. It heralds another wave of expansion and yet more diversity in higher education by dropping the prerequisite that institutions must do research to become universities.
2006: The first students start to pay annual tuition fees of up to Pounds 3,000, which emphasises the new consumer status of students.
2009: Review of tuition fees, which many consider will result in still higher charges and is likely to enshrine market economics in higher education.