They are demanding much less emphasis on the "academic, subject-centred curriculum" with its focus on assessment and more on skills that develop deeper thinking and all-round abilities. Too many audits and targets distort learning.
The MSPs dismiss any notion that basic skills are declining but contend that comparing senior students with previous generations may not be comparing like with like. "It might not be appropriate to have the same expectations of higher education entrants when one half of the age group is entering than when (as in the 1960s) the proportion was one in 10."
In its evidence to the committee's lengthy consultation on the purposes of education, Universities Scotland expressed strong concern that many new students need remedial support, "even where they have good school qualifications".
Their intellectual development was being damaged by the exam system and a narrow subject-based curriculum. Senior students did not write enough letters, reports and essays and struggled with grammar and punctuation.
"The ability to develop arguments, structure essays and maintain the momentum of writing appears to have declined," the universities argued.
There were similar shortcomings in numeracy-based courses.
The universities commented: "There is anecdotal evidence that school pupils develop assessment-driven motivation in which their only motivation is an approaching deadline for individual pieces of work."
Following their extensive consultation, MSPs found little support for teaching vocational skills. Employers argued that the skills required for a lifetime of changing employment were similar to those needed to be an effective citizen - adaptability, creativity and the capacity to relate to people.
Specific job skills were best left to the workplace.
But MSPs want schools to develop a wide range of skills, competences and personal qualities and to involve young people far more.
"Less attention needs to be given to league tables in assessing the quality of schools and more to the quality of interactions between students and teachers, and to the quality of educational and social vision which headteachers and other educational leaders can exercise and can bring to bear on educational change itself," their report states.
Their inquiry found no support for the specialist schools emerging south of the border. Instead, they are pressing for more curricular choice within a broadly accepted framework.