Some universities are not handling student complaints effectively and are failing to abide by their own regulations, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator has said.
In its annual report, the OIA says it has encountered cases of universities dealing with complaints insensitively and of students being denied the opportunity to put their cases in person.
But the organisation, which looks at complaints once students have exhausted internal complaint procedures, said the sector should be encouraged by the relatively small number of complaints that were found to be justified. Rob Behrens, the Independent Adjudicator, said: "There is much good work done to address student complaints and a cadre of professional and dedicated staff to deal with them."
The number of complaints received by the OIA has risen once again this year, with 900 submitted in 2008, up 23 per cent on 2007.
Of these, 82 per cent were eligible, and during the year the OIA closed 630 cases. Most complaints determined - 71 per cent - were found to be "not justified".
However, Mr Behrens said there was no room for complacency.
"In the course of the year I have come across a small number of universities insufficiently resourced for effective complaints handling and unacceptable examples of serious delay in addressing formal complaints. There are also examples of insensitive handling and of universities failing to abide by their own regulations," he said.
The OIA's report describes universities' plagiarism practices as "variable". While many have proactive policies to educate students about the dangers, some do not.
"In a small number of cases, students have been denied natural justice through conflicts of interest in overlapping membership of misconduct and appeals panels," it says.
"There is also evidence of some students being denied the opportunity to put their case in person, or being required to 'prove' their innocence when universities have a responsibility to demonstrate that the case is proven."
Sanctions for plagiarism are sometimes disproportionate, it adds.
The OIA report says it reviewed a number of cases where there had been reluctance to give timely feedback to underperforming postgraduate students. "This creates false expectations of successful outcomes from thesis submission and is something that could be avoided. There are also failures by supervisors to keep appropriate minimum records of supervision meetings with students, a practice which impedes ... complaints handling," it adds.
The OIA awarded £93,535 in compensation during 2008 and reduced the average number of days it took to deal with complaints from 171 days to 142 days.