Universities do not have the "appetite" or capacity to take the "leading role" in the design of A levels envisaged by ministers, the head of a major university has said.
The warning could prove embarrassing for Michael Gove because it comes from his former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, Sir David Bell, now vice-chancellor at the University of Reading.
Mr Gove has placed universities at the centre of his plans for reforming A levels, which exams watchdog Ofqual began consulting on this week (see panel, left).
The education secretary wants them to "drive the system" and have a "far greater involvement in the design and development of A-level qualifications than they do at present".
But asked whether there was capacity for universities to increase their involvement, Sir David said: "I think that's the point. We are not in business to design examinations.
"We are in business to influence the shape and structure and content of exams because universities are a customer of A levels. But they are not the only customer."
The Russell Group of large research-intensive universities also warned that while they wanted to help shape A levels, they faced "real pressures of time and resources".
Mr Gove has insisted that universities' involvement should be high, and not a "tick-box exercise". Ofqual this week suggested that at least 20 should sign off each new A level.
But Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR exam board, has already warned that any attempt to set up a joint body for university approval of the exams - as suggested by Million+, the body representing post-1992 institutions - could jeopardise the 2014 deadline set by Mr Gove for their introduction.
Ofqual admitted this week that the timescale would be "very tight", even if it stuck to priority subjects. The watchdog has suggested a new deadline of 2018 for all subjects.
Sir David said that universities were "pleased to be involved" in A-level reform. But he added: "I have not found anyone at the University of Reading who wants to get into the nitty-gritty business of designing and setting exams. It is right that we are involved, but I don't sense an appetite for us to get into the exam creation business."
Ofqual wants modules to be scrapped and to limit resits, but is "neutral" on the most contentious outstanding issue: the future of the AS level. Universities including Oxford and Cambridge, schools and exam boards all want the exam, taken halfway through A-level courses, to survive.
Sir David said that university academics were most concerned about changing the maths content of A levels.
Mr Dawe told TES that he thought the extra maths skills needed by universities could be assessed by new exams taken in addition to A levels. "We strongly believe that a suite of maths qualifications is needed, that aren't A levels, for 16 to 18-year-olds," he said. "You might have a maths for science and a maths for social studies - not a full A level but something that gives them the maths they need.
"The feedback we are getting from the different communities is that these are the sort of maths that are needed to support these students at university."
Some argue that the need to make A levels comparable across different subjects has led to artificial limits on maths content in subjects such as physics.
Mr Gove has stressed that standards within subjects need not be constrained by "any concept of comparability" between them, a point that Ofqual has accepted. But Mr Dawe believes there could be downsides to making qualifications tougher.
"The issue is that the more complicated you make this (physics) A level, the less people are going to do it," he said. "So if we want to encourage people to do sciences then we've got to be very careful not to pile loads of things like complex maths in there."
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "We are not expecting universities to take over the entire design of A levels. We expect them to take a lead in specifying what subject knowledge they want pupils to have when they arrive at university and to work with exam boards on assessment."
Potential for a grading system for new A levels that helps universities to differentiate between candidates and to avoid "invalid" comparisons with existing A levels.
An end to January exams for A levels and AS levels from 2013.
The limit of resits to one per qualification from 2013.
An end to the split of both AS levels and A2 exams into two modules from 2013.
Each new A level should have the support of at least 20 UK universities, at least 12 of which are "respected" in the subject andor deemed to be leading research institutions.
Ofqual is "neutral" on whether AS levels should survive and is consulting on whether to retain the status quo, abolish the AS level or change it to a stand-alone qualification that does not contribute to an A level.
The watchdog is seeking views on whether the AS level weighting should be changed from 50 per cent of an A level to, for example, 40 per cent.
The Great Debate
TES is running the Great A-level Debate as part of exam watchdog Ofqual's consultation on the exams' structure and design.
TES is hosting online debates and surveys to find out what teachers think about the so-called "gold standard" and how they want the qualification to develop. Topics under discussion include: Does grade inflation exist? Should all A levels have the same worth? Are A levels only useful as a university entrance exam?
Exam board OCR has agreed to use the views and findings generated by teachers in this discussion in its formal consultation response to Ofqual.
The best contributions will be in with a chance to be published in TES and win book tokens worth #163;50. This week's is on page 7.