More than 40 per cent of US academics think their students lack even the basic skills for university-level work, according to a survey.
The survey, of 40,670 professors at 421 universities, also discovered that staff believe efforts to increase diversity are watering down the quality of students.
The survey's director, Jennifer Lindholm, found some comfort in the fact that the percentage of faculty who said their students were well prepared was rising slowly, from 28 per cent in 1998 to 32 per cent in 2001 to 36 per cent today.
Ms Lindholm said the much larger proportion who find their students cannot keep up underscored "the significance of the challenges that faculty who work with underprepared students face". Indeed, 56 per cent said working with such students was a source of stress.
Faculty members at two-year colleges and public four-year colleges were the least inclined to view their students as academically well prepared. In contrast, more than two thirds (67 per cent) of private university staff members said their students were well prepared academically.
The survey, by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, reports that staff are increasingly polarised politically. More than half considered themselves liberal, up from 41 per cent three years ago, while 20 per cent said they were conservative, also up slightly. Meanwhile, the number of those occupying the political middle ground has shrunk from more than 40 per cent to less than 30 per cent.
More than half of men and two thirds of women said that keeping up with new technology was causing stress in their jobs.
Most said they approved of promoting diversity on campus, but one in four said they believed that this led to the admission of too many underprepared students.
Fewer than a third of faculty think their job is to increase their students' earning potential. Almost all said their goal was to help their students to learn to think critically (99 per cent), master a discipline (94 per cent) and write effectively (87 per cent).
The 2004-05 Faculty Survey is the ninth national survey of university staff conducted by the institute and the sixth in a triennial series initiated in 1989.
Since 1989, more than 300,000 faculty members at more than 1,100 colleges nationwide have taken part.