Academic appeals by students at more than half of British universities have risen in the past two years, research suggests.
Tim Birtwistle, a law lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University who conducted the survey, criticised the unequal treatment received by students at traditional universities, the majority of whom are still subject to the "anachronistic" visitor system that usually denies them access to judicial review.
"While this situation persists, the binary divide will continue," Mr Birtwistle said. "Students are entitled to equality of treatment. It really is anomalous that within the same jurisdiction such different systems operate."
Mr Birtwistle asked student unions in England and Wales if there had been a discernible rise in academic appeals in the past one to two years: 55 per cent said there had been an increase.
The research also revealed that students requesting an academic appeal - against the decision of an examinations board - often had difficulties obtaining the regulations governing the process. "They are not exactly offered on a platter," he said.
Mr Birtwistle said that anecdotal evidence supported the growing view that large firms of solicitors are gearing up to take on more casework as student fees encouraged the consumer approach to higher education. "We could certainly see increasing clashes because students will feel they have a financial contract with their university," he said.
Higher Education for the 21st Century, the government's response to Dearing, gives universities two years to review their procedures for handling student complaints. Mr Birtwistle said it would be ridiculous for institutions to write different sets of regulations. However, he was doubtful that universities with the visitor system would give it up willingly.
Addressing the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' recent recommendation that universities could turn to arbitration to deal with student complaints, Mr Birtwhistle said: "There is a need to reassess the relationships between the stakeholders, in particular the possible avenues of appeal by a student against the decision of an examination board. However, I am not sure that adding another tier to the process is the right answer."
The research uncovered much confusion as to the distinction between complaints that could be to do with harassment, poor teaching or supervision, and academic appeals that question the procedures of an assessment.
"This is an opportunity for a total reassessment of the way in which appeals are treated," Mr Birtwistle said.