Universities are having to provide remedial courses in maths and languages because A levels are not preparing students adequately for the rigours of higher education, according to the universities' funding chief.
Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, told MPs last week that universities had to provide "catch-up courses" for first-years who were leaving school without the basics.
He told the House of Commons public accounts committee that the introduction of modular A levels had left gaps in students' knowledge. In A-level maths, for example, modularisation means that students can pick from a range of areas, gaining the necessary knowledge in some but not in others.
"Universities cannot assume that everyone is at the same level," Sir Howard said. "There is a lot of intensive tuition in the first year to bring everyone up to the level you might have expected them all to be at a few years ago."
The PAC was taking evidence on a report by the National Audit Office on student achievement levels. The NAO found there was widespread concern about the number of students who struggled with numeracy.
The Engineering Council warned the NAO that engineering students needed a high level of additional maths tuition, and that without more support there would be high numbers of dropouts.
Sir Howard said the problem was also apparent with A-level modern language students, and providing remedial classes was "resource intensive".
He said improvements were needed to help reduce the number of dropouts, including increased contact time between tutors and students and a "greater parity of esteem" between teaching and research.
Sir Howard rebutted suggestions by members of the PAC that expansion had led to declining standards. "Universities have ensured that whatever students go into higher education with, the standards of the degrees they leave university with have not declined."
He said dropout levels on average were low in the United Kingdom, at 17 per cent. But he accepted that variations between universities were too high, ranging from 52 per cent to 2 per cent.