Lecturers are under increasing pressure to pass students who should fail because universities need the money they bring in, a lecturers' union warned this week.
The warning from Natfhe follows newspaper reports of a manager at Bournemouth University urging his staff to raise the exam scores of students who just fail.
It was reported at the weekend that Richard Wynne, head of the School of Design, Engineering and Computing at Bournemouth University, told staff before the summer exams to find "one or two" extra marks for students just below the pass threshold. He pointed out that each students brings in £4,500 for the department.
Andy Pike, national official in Natfhe's universities department, said the case was part of a much wider phenomenon.
Mr Pike said: "Academics are in a no-win situation. On the one hand they are expected to maintain rigorous standards but on the other they are under pressure from managers not to fail too many students irrespective of their performance."
He said that the funding regime was largely to blame. "In accordance with Government policy, universities are encouraged to recruit non-traditional students who require additional support, but in some instances where these students are unable to complete the course, universities face a hefty clawback of funds."
According to the weekend reports, Professor Wynne emailed staff saying: "I would urge all academic staff involved in marking examinations etc to look very carefully at those students gaining marks in the 30s.
"If the mark is 38-39 (just below the pass mark) then please, where possible, look for the extra 1-2 marks if appropriate and not leave it to the exam board to make this decision.
"I often reduce the problem to one of money. It perhaps brings home the issue at hand when you consider that each student brings an income of approximately £4,500. You can all do the sums as well as me to work out the likely implications for the school."
The university denied that the memo advocated lowering standards, and stood behind Professor Wynne, who declined to be interviewed this week.
It said that no action has been taken or was likely to be taken against Professor Wynne and that there would be no investigation into exam marking standards in the school.
The statement said: "There is nothing in Professor Wynne's email that suggests the compromising of academic standards at Bournemouth.
"Each student's academic performance is crucial to his/her progression and success and, as a university, we do not advocate that standards are lowered for any reason."
But the university did accept that it was under financial pressure to reach its student number targets, and that failures were not good for recruitment.
"Students are a vital income stream. However, it is not in our best interests - either short or long term - to lower our standards (academic or otherwise) in order to achieve short-term financial goals."