The number of students challenging punishments handed out for cheating and plagiarism has quadrupled in just three years.
Eighty-two students registered complaints over the handling of academic-misconduct charges resolved by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator in 2011 - up from just 20 cases in 2008, according to the ombudsman's annual report, published on 14 June. These cases comprised 6 per cent of the 1,443 complaints closed in 2011.
Of the total complaints made, 5 per cent were upheld and 11 per cent were partially upheld. Most concerned academic grades, assessments and appeals, with 10 per cent relating to alleged breaches of contract between universities and students. The OIA did not disclose the proportion of misconduct complaints upheld.
Protests over the penalties imposed for cheating, connected largely to easy access to essays bought on the internet, were a growing concern, said Rob Behrens, the independent adjudicator. "We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg - universities are dealing with many times the amount we see," he said.
Institutions needed to give clearer advice to students on the dangers of copying others' work and ensure they had fair, consistent procedures for breaches of academic integrity, he said.
"Several of our complainants admitted they behaved inappropriately, but felt the punishment was excessive," he said. "For others, they want to use whatever means are available to get the punishment overturned. For instance, plagiarism is a very serious matter for law students. Solicitors can be damaged for the rest of their careers unless they manage to get any mention of it removed from their records."
The extent of permitted assistance for postgraduates, particularly foreign ones, was fraught with uncertainty, Mr Behrens added.
He said he had given evidence on policy to the Woolf report, which investigated whether Saif Gaddafihad cheated on his PhD thesis at the London School of Economics.
Mr Behrens welcomed the development of a reference tariff for plagiarism, which could be used to compare regulations between different universities and ensure a degree of consistency.
"Sometimes universities that get it wrong are those isolated from these networks, as they don't have a perspective on whether their punishments are proportionate. A tariff does not bind universities, but it makes them aware of good practice."
The annual report also details how appeals to the OIA increased by 20 per cent year on year, although complaints are expected to soar even higher when tuition fees rise to up to £9,000 in September.
The OIA awarded just over £184,000 in compensation to students, with the highest award - £10,000 - going to a postgraduate who was unfairly denied a PhD place by an unnamed university.