University admissions tutors and lecturers think the students they are taking in are increasingly less capable, a report suggests.
Admissions tutors think capacity for independent study has diminished
Staff at 16 universities of different types were questioned for the ongoing Nuffield Review of 14 to 19 learning.
Many felt students arrived from the school system with "assessment burn-out", said the report leaked to the Times Higher Education Supplement.
Skills in reading, communication and thinking were worse than 10 years ago.
There was particular concern about standards in modern foreign languages, history, maths and single sciences.
The report due to be published in full later this month said some lecturers were having to postpone starting undergraduate courses so students could be brought up to speed.
Recruits increasingly struggled to cope with the independent learning expected in higher education.
One of the researchers was Dr Geoff Hayward of Oxford University's educational studies department.
He said: "Negative comments are not indicative of higher education tutors and admissions staff whingeing or harking back to some golden age, but represent genuine concerns about young people and their capacity to benefit from the higher education experience."
Dr David Law of Warwick University, who chairs the admissions practitioners group of the Academic Registrars' Council, told the BBC News website students were not to blame, the problem was systemic.
"The question of 14 to 19 curricula is vital for higher education in that we do clearly need to understand as well as possible what our students are coming into university with," he said.
This was especially so with the government expecting 50% of young people to go into higher education.
He said it would be useful to revisit the Tomlinson Report - which recommended diplomas.
"We need to look at what can be salvaged: getting more breadth into the 14 to 19 curriculum."
He welcomed the proposed introduction of specialised diplomas from 2008.
Dr Law said there was a perennial debate about declining standards - for instance in maths.
"I have been reading that kind of thing for 20 years."
Bill Rammell, Higher Education Minister, said: "No government has done more to ensure young people do not leave schools without the basic skills.
"Standards in English and maths are at their highest levels ever and all the evidence - key stage results, international comparisons, and Ofsted reports - make this clear."
Higher education had a responsibility to "engage in the 14-19 agenda" and play its part.
A survey of 500 youngsters for Siemens suggests many who would like to take A-level science, design and technology and maths are deterred by needing A grades for university entry.
More than 80% believed science qualifications would lead to interesting and well-paid jobs.
Siemens chief executive Alan Wood, said: "We feel it is time to consider innovations in how the subject is taught at GCSE level, the degree of support given during A-levels and perhaps even a different points system for science and maths subjects.
"This is not to suggest 'dumbing down' the subjects at all, but we do need to ensure that students do not feel that if they choose harder subjects they will be less likely to get a place at a good university."
Among the (anonymous) comments:
- "Remedial maths courses are on offer and the department has employed a learning officer to help with 'how to learn'."
- "No actual civil engineering is done in the first semester and the second year material has now moved to the third year."
- "They cut and paste essays from the web. Reading books is a skill which has been lost."
- "I was able to skim the cream of candidates, but even they do not necessarily know how to use an apostrophe."
- "They can't even write in sentences. Their spelling is appalling. They can't be understood - they graduate with a 2:1 but they still can't spell or write English."
- "Elementary maths is missing. They can't put decent sentences together."
- "Students hate numbers, they're scared stiff of numbers."
- "Languages seem to be increasingly becoming the preserve of those in the independent sector."
- "In science subjects students have less practical skills now than previously. The problem may lie in the curriculum - there is less space for practical experiments, students lost the excitement for science."