Employers have become so concerned that the widening participation agenda has "watered-down" degrees that one major company is considering recruiting talented school-leavers rather than graduates.
David Lathbury, head of process chemistry at AstraZeneca, which employs hundreds of graduates, told a conference at Loughborough University that businesses were increasingly frustrated by degree programme add-ons, such as computing skills and foreign languages, that aimed to broaden course appeal but distracted from the core subjects.
Large industrial employers were being forced to look overseas to fill graduate jobs, he said. AstraZeneca was planning to recruit able school-leavers who would be put through a tailored programme of higher education, a system that was abandoned 20 years ago.
Mr Lathbury told a Crac Admissions to Higher Education conference that as the world grew more complex, degree-level education - particularly in the sciences - was moving in the opposite direction. "By broadening participation, you have to compromise on factual education, which leaves us with a gap to fill."
Mr Lathbury said: "This is a very worrying trend. There seems to be an emphasis on generalist skills at the expense of core subjects. But the fact is we don't mind whether someone can use PowerPoint or not. We are interested in whether they are scientifically able."
Rachel Ashley, head of resourcing at Qinetiq, which employs about 300 physics, engineering and maths graduates a year, told The THES that there had been an undeniable fall in scientific standards among graduates, most noticeably in the past two years. She said: "Because of the nature of our research-and-development work, we need to explore the depth of candidates'
technical knowledge, and I regularly see them floundering over the fundamentals of coursework - and these are sometimes students who are expected to get firsts."
Richard Wilson, business policy executive at the Institute of Directors in London, said: "Recruiters would assume a level of literacy and numeracy among graduates. Over and above that, they often want a significant amount of specialist knowledge. Where is the hard evidence that employers want breadth of study?"
Jill Johnson, of the outreach department at the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, criticised universities for rebranding courses: "We have 50,000 programmes listed, and the renaming of courses for marketing reasons, especially when the names do not reflect the content of the course, is not helpful."
But universities believe they are offering necessary courses and skills.
Robert Burgess, vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester, said there was a huge demand for so-called up-skilling of undergraduates. "We have embedded core skills throughout our curriculum in all subject areas. This is not just a requirement of employers, it is a valuable learning experience in itself."
Celia Johnson, manager of school and college qualifications at the Department for Education and Skills, defended the teaching of key skills at degree level: "They have intrinsic value. The key is for universities and colleges to engage with employers so they can get it right."