Professor Colin Blakemore, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, said Britain was still working within a further and higher education network shaped in the 1940s.
He said the system of three specialist subjects at A-level and a three-year honours degree had "worked well enough in 1962, when I left school, because only 5 per cent of school-leavers went to university. But it is under severe strain now that more than 30 per cent do so. The introduction of the student contribution to fees is only patching up the problem. Many undergraduates live in abject poverty and are incurring large debts. An increasing fraction of students are not completing the course of their initial choice."
Professor Blakemore, a neuroscientist at Oxford University, made his remarks at the opening of the British Association festival of science. He added that there was a growing consensus that the traditional sixth form was too narrow. He proposed a new two-tier system with a four-year university course for top students and a two-year "ordinary" degree course for the majority, providing a "well-rounded advanced education or preparation for subsequent vocational training".