A study of students with different kinds of qualifications entering higher education casts doubt on the assumption that A levels are the "gold standard".
Sarah Wilkinson, an education researcher at Staffordshire University, has studied 50 students about to begin degrees. The students were divided into three groups depending on whether they had A Levels, GNVQs or access qualifications.
Her research, to be presented to the British Educational Research Association conference at Sussex University next week, shows that while A-level students were more likely to have been taught critical thinking and essay writing skills, in most other ways the GNVQ students were equally well prepared.
The GNVQ students could even have some advantages over more conventional undergraduates.
Ms Wilkinson found that some A-level students were "spoon-fed" at school. They were often told which pages to go to in text books, for example, whereas the GNVQ courses were more likely to have prepared students for independent study.
"On the whole the GNVQ students were pretty confident academically, although they were quite nervous about the exam culture in higher education since they were used to assessed coursework," Ms Wilkinson said.
Students in the access course group were also relatively well prepared for degree-level study although they had more concerns about childcare and money.
Contrasts also occurred in the way students in the different groups were advised about university entry. Ms Wilkinson said the A-level group had built in sessions covering the UCAS form, course choices and other issues whereas for the other two groups advice was more hit and miss.
"It really depended on whether their tutor happened to be interested or not," she said.
The students will be followed up individually during their first year as undergraduates as the next phase of Ms Wilkinson's research.