Lecturers fear that they are giving an unfair advantage to the growing number of students declaring that they have disabilities such as dys-lexia, a four-year study indicates.
The researchers found that rules requiring universities to take into account students' disabilities when assessing their work were causing "major anxieties".
A study of four universities' responses to disability legislation requiring "reasonable adjustments" for disabled students found concerns at all four institutions. The research, led by Sheila Riddell, director of the Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity at the University of Edinburgh, highlighted "major anxieties about conferring unfair advantage on disabled students in comparison with other students having difficulty".
Disabilities that are seen as difficult to assess reliably, such as dyslexia, raise particular problems. Dyslexic students are the biggest single group of disabled students in higher education. The report quotes one academic saying: "Some varieties of dyslexia seem to shade into difficulties that are not just in a sense lexical ... one does get a little suspicious at the margins ... there are some grey areas, and the growing numbers make me a bit anxious."
A senior manager at the same university said: "Maintaining standards in a proper way and admitting some classes of disabled students is very, very difficult to do."
Staff questioned whether additional help, such as the use of computers in exams, should be given to disabled students only. At one institution, students from severely disadvantaged backgrounds often experienced difficulties with traditional forms of assessment, and staff believed adjustments should be made for them too, the report says.
Geoffrey Sampson, a professor of informatics at the University of Sussex, said the writing ability of his dyslexic students - about 10 per cent of the total - was little different from the average, but the rules forbid marking down language errors.
"I suspect the rule was written by somebody who doesn't realise how many of those errors are made by non-dyslexic undergraduates," he told Times Higher Education.
A policy paper on adjustments for students with mental health difficulties from the Universities Mental Health Advisers Network notes that decisions on adjustments depend on individual tutors' attitudes. Staff are more likely to make adjustments for students they feel are dedicated or gifted - but this distinction falls short of the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act.