Ministers will relinquish control of syllabuses and hand them to exam boards and academic panels made up of senior dons from Russell Group universities. The new A-level qualification could be introduced as early as 2014. It is expected to lead to a significant toughening of exams and could eventually result in the abolition of modules and AS-level test papers taken in the first year of the sixth form. The move coincides with research published today revealing that many universities are being forced to provide booster lessons in the three Rs for first-year undergraduates because school leavers are so badly prepared for degree courses. A study by Cambridge Assessment reported that many teenagers struggled to structure an essay, use correct spelling, punctuation and grammar and carry out independent research after being “spoon-fed” through A-levels. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, said he was “increasingly concerned” that the qualifications, taken by almost 300,000 pupils every year in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, “fall short of commanding the level of confidence we would want to see”. In a letter to the head of Ofqual, the qualifications watchdog, he said the Government “must take a step back in order to allow universities to take a leading role” in setting courses. “In future, I do not envisage the Department for Education having a role in the development of A-level qualifications,” he said. “It is more important that universities are satisfied that A-levels enable young people to start their undergraduate degrees having gained the right knowledge and skills, than that ministers are able to influence the curriculum content or methods of assessment. “I am particularly keen that universities should be able to determine the subject content, and that they should endorse specifications, including details of how the subject should be assessed.” A-levels were introduced in the early 1950s as the main examination for 18 year-olds. Tests were originally set by university-led exam boards and acted as the principal gateway to higher education. Over the past 30 years, universities have been edged out as government control increased. The Department for Education now outlines the structure of A-levels and sets subject-specific criteria that examiners are expected to follow. Controversially, this led to the introduction of AS-level exams in the first year of the sixth form a decade ago and a move to break down courses into a series of “bite-sized” modules that students can retake repeatedly to inflate their overall grade. Many academics and school leaders said the consistent meddling in the qualification had led to a drop in academic rigour and year-on-year grade inflation, which made it harder for universities to pick out the brightest students. Yesterday, it was announced that the Government would no longer play a part in setting A-levels. The main exam boards will be expected to consult leading academics, with a particular emphasis on research universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and University College London, before drawing up exam syllabuses and test questions. Mr Gove said examiners would be required to provide Ofqual with evidence of academics’ input, adding: “University ownership of the exams must be real and committed, not a tick-box exercise.” Ofqual would set “core design rules” to secure basic standards, but these should be “kept to a minimum”, said Mr Gove. The Government suggested that it could lead to the creation of broader syllabuses and a change to the structure of test papers — including longer, essay-style questions — to act as a better preparation for higher education. Universities will also be asked to assess the future of AS-levels, modular exams, retakes and January tests. A Coalition source said: “Many academics in the very best universities complain bitterly about modules and AS-levels. The January exam window has been particularly strongly criticised, as has the culture of repeated resits. “However, if all modules and AS-levels were stopped, then some now doing A-levels in the most rigorous subjects like maths would switch to less demanding courses. These issues will have to be thrashed out in coming weeks.” Under the proposals, exam boards will be expected to devise new A-levels to begin teaching in September 2014, starting with core subjects such as English, maths and the sciences. The first exams will be taken in 2016. The reforms initially apply to England, although it is hoping they will be adopted by devolved administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland, which also use A-levels.