Academics at the University of the West of England have been warned about the dangers of providing students with "subliminal feedback" after one undergraduate complained when her essay was returned with a coffee stain.
In a case held up to The Times Higher as an indication that students' enthusiasm for making complaints has reached "ridiculous" proportions, a nursing student made a written complaint to her course leader, claiming that she was offended by a coffee ring on her essay. The student said it showed a lack of respect for her work.
An academic within the healthcare division, who saw the complaint but who has asked not to be named, said: "Since I've worked at UWE I've been surprised at students' ability to complain about pretty much everything.
"The student said she had taken great offence at discovering that her essay had been used as a coaster for a cup of coffee. She saw this as a slight on her work, which had been treated with blatant disrespect in someone's home. She would have expected an apology to have been appended to her essay when it was returned and was now seeking one from the course leader."
The course leader circulated the student's complaint to all the markers in the team. "She asked us all to ensure that this particular form of subliminal feedback was avoided in future. The whole event was ridiculous," the academic said.
Such complaints will be less likely in future, as UWE has been increasing its use of online submissions and marking.
The university would not comment on the coffee-stain complaint, but said: "Online submission has been developed to cope with increasing demand from some students and staff. Students want online submission of assignments, particularly those on distance learning and block release-type courses where the date of attendance does not coincide with the date of submission. Some staff have also asked to mark online.
"Key to the service is the ability to provide online receipt and online tracking in the same way as booking an easyJet flight.
"We have seen paper volumes reduce by about 20 per cent over the past year following the growth of online usage."