The Westminster government's exam reform programme was under siege last week, as universities rebuffed plans for higher education to "own" new A levels.
The opposition came as proposals for an "Advanced Baccalaureate" (ABac) league table measure, requiring A-level students to write a 5,000-word essay and undertake voluntary work, were leaked. However, a source very close to education secretary Michael Gove played down the idea, describing it as being simply "on the drawing board".
"By far the most important thing we are doing on A levels is getting university academics back in the driving seat instead of the Department for Education," the source said.
The complete rejection of that idea - which is at the heart of Mr Gove's A-level reforms - by the UK's university sector will be seen as a particularly damaging blow for the education secretary.
He wanted government to "step back", allowing universities to take "real and committed" ownership of new A levels, giving the qualifications their endorsement so that they, rather than exam boards, "drive the system".
But in an official response to the plans, seen by TES, Universities UK states: "We do not think it would be advisable or operationally feasible for the sector to take on the `ownership of the exams', particularly in terms of formally endorsing all A levels as currently proposed."
The organisation, which represents all the UK's 115 universities, argues that because A levels are a national qualification, "ultimate responsibility and accountability" for them should remain with the government. Its response to Ofqual's consultation on A-level reform says that universities "broadly agree" that existing A levels "remain fit for purpose".
Ministers believe there is a split over A levels between academics and the universities they work for, which represents a "huge problem".
"Almost all academics want linear A levels, but universities are not run by academics and admin offices have totally different views, partly because of the cursed focus on `access' which has poisoned intelligent discussion of (the) real problem, which is too many rubbish schools," the source close to Mr Gove said.
Universities UK accepts that there are "technical" reforms that might improve A levels, but warns of "profound practical concerns which would require a substantial amount of work to overcome before some of the reforms could be implemented".
It describes the government's timetable, which would mean new A levels being taught from 2014, as "too ambitious". The body also argues that the government's abolition earlier this year of the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency has left a "gap" and "the absence of any structure" for developing the qualifications.
Heads of Ofqual past and present, two of England's big three exam boards, the Conservative chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, two recently departed senior DfE officials, teaching unions and academic experts have all now spoken out against the government's proposed exam reforms.
Glenys Stacey, Ofqual chief regulator, has already voiced concerns about the English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) reform timetable - the GCSE replacements are to be taught from 2015. She has also warned that the single exam board franchise model proposed would make it "extremely difficult" to regulate EBCs and ensure "standards and value for money".
Ms Stacey has now gone further and said that franchising would also increase risks for A levels, remaining GCSEs and the viability of entire exam boards. It would threaten the "cross-subsidies" between qualifications and lead to the "financial turbulence and uncertainty inherent in market reform", she told a Cambridge Assessment conference last week.
About the abac
The ABac would require A-level students to study "contrasting" subjects and, potentially, at least two subjects from a list specified by Russell Group universities: maths, further maths, English literature, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history, and modern and classical languages, it was revealed last week. They would also have to write an extended essay and complete voluntary work, The Times reported.