The SQA has informed schools that students just failing at one course will be awarded a compensatory A pass at the level below. The ruling particularly applies to Higher students who pass the units but fail the external exam. They will now receive an A pass at Intermediate 2.
A consultation revealed support for changing the previous system which awarded a C pass at the lower level. Teachers felt this unfair.
Mr Russell, however, said there was concern among universities about the change. "This could be presented as a significant success when in reality it is a significant failure for a student," he said.
Judith Gillespie, parent member of the national qualifications steering group, believes universities and colleges were not fully involved in the decision which was devised ahead of the growth of Advanced Higher. Higher education had no time to change its system.
Mrs Gillespie said a student could fail the Advanced Higher exam and receive an A at Higher, the gold standard for university entrance. "A candidate who gets a B at Higher may be asked to get a B at Advanced Higher. If he or she just fails the final exam and gets a compensatory A award at Higher, they might leapfrog over a candidate who starts with a similar B grde at Higher and manages to get a C pass at Advanced Higher."
She also argues that the compensatory A pass misrepresents the skill level of the student who is not able to attain the basic course award at the next level. Mrs Gillespie does not recall a decision at the national steering group.
Bill Morton, SQA chief executive, told Mr Russell there had been a full consultation and there were no plans to reconsider.
David Caldwell, chief executive of Universities Scotland, said: "If what is happening is that people failing the Advanced Higher and failing narrowly have obtained the standard appropriate to band A at Higher, this ought not to be a problem. But there is a serious issue about whether that standard is being properly monitored. It's absolutely a standards issue."
Physics teachers are the latest group to add their voices to demands for changes to the internal assessment of their subject within the Higher Still programme. Thirty heads of departments in the east of Scotland have put their names to a petition protesting about the entire concept of internal assessment. The burden on pupils is heavy, they say, and the assessment of pupils' practical abilities is "flawed". The group also complain that "the teacher time required cannot be justified educationally".
Physics teachers decided to speak out following their final Higher Still training day on Tuesday. They said they had been calling for changes for several years and were ignored.