Teenagers are being spoon-fed through GCSEs and A-levels to such an extent that they arrive at university "expecting to be told the answers", the Nuffield 14-19 inquiry found. Universities said they had to provide remedial lessons.
A major factor was the pressure on schools to improve results. Yet, despite improving scores, university staff believe that students' linguistic and mathematical skills are declining.
The Nuffield review, led by Professor Richard Pring, of Oxford university, and funded by the Nuffield Foundation charity, held focus groups with nearly 250 lecturers and admissions tutors last autumn.
The academics came from 21 universities in England and Wales, ranging from highly selective "old" universities to former polytechnics and colleges offering degree courses.
Almost all universities complained about "over-assessment" and modular exams, in which A-levels and some GCSEs are split into units. They said this prevented pupils gaining deeper understanding of subjects.
Pupils' English, mathematical and language skills were deteriorating, they said, with students unable to manipulate numbers appropriately and struggling with essay writing.
Several universities were unhappy that students could resit AS-level papers several times, but only report the best result.
All the focus groups said pupils had the capacity to work hard, had a broad range of social and problem-solving skills and better oral and presentation abilities.
But negatives predominated. The academics said that the exams and accountabilty system was working against creating the independent, committed students they wanted. One said: "Students arrive at a seminar with an empty pad, waiting for the solutions simply to be communicated to them."
A survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters found that many graduates lacked basic skills, including poor spelling, grammar and maths.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "This raises some fundamental questions about the ever-increasing assessment regime. It is not, and never has been, what employers or higher education want."
The Department for Education and Skills was unable to provide a response to the Nuffield review by the time The TES went to press.
The Nuffield Review Higher Education Focus Groups Preliminary Report will be published within the next week at www.nuffield14-19review.org.uk