Rising numbers of students are getting their degree marks increased by claiming that there were mitigating circumstances that marred their performance in exams.
Academics expressed concerns this week that students were making false claims of extenuating circumstances, such as the death of relatives, or were overemphasising relatively trivial matters such as the death of a pet, in order to artificially inflate their grades.
A task force at the University of Manchester has recommended a "fundamental review" of how the institution handles claims of mitigating circumstances after a quarter of all students in its School of Arts, Histories and Cultures (410 students) submitted appeals in 2006-07 in relation to assessment.
An internal report says students have been encouraged to inform schools of "every small setback" that might affect their performance, adding that "they are given an expectation that this will be taken into account in ... assessment".
"There should be a change in approach whereby students understand it is normal to experience problems of one sort or another as part of life and the university is not here to provide the solution," Manchester's report continues, urging more "personal responsibility".
Meanwhile the Academic Registrars Council has begun compiling a guide to dealing with extenuating circumstances to increase consistency between universities in how cases are handled.
Huw Morris, academic registrar at Swansea University and chair of the ARC's students' complaints practitioner group, said: "We are responding to the growth in cases."
Swansea itself has begun to use software to track students' marks to see whether claimed special circumstances genuinely coincide with a dip in performance.
In general, students can be offered resits without a cap on the marks available or have their marks improved if they register problems.
One senior source at a Russell Group institution, speaking on condition that his institution would not be named, said that one department of about 30 students saw its claims rise from eight in 2005-06 to 18 in 2006-07. So far, 14 claims had been made in 2007-08, but this figure is expected to rise further. Another school at the same institution expects to get 80 claims from among its 300 students.
The source said: "Anecdotally, everybody thinks there is more of this going on and the reasons students seek extenuating circumstances have become more trivial."
Trivial claims included "I hurt my hand and cannot write" or "I have to go to a wedding", he said.
"There are obviously lots of perfectly justifiable cases and some kids have incredible hardships to deal with in their studies," he added, "but some people take pity on themselves for very little reason."
He said students were coming to university less self-sufficient than they had been in the past. But he added: "I do not think they have become more devious. I think there is more of an awareness that there are these structures in place."
The University of Bradford has also seen a rise in students claiming extenuating circumstances, including a growth in "insurance claims" where students declare problems in case they get bad marks. Geoff Layer, pro vice-chancellor for teaching and learning at Bradford, said: "There is a culture of 'I must get my extenuating circumstance in'." He added that the situation was similar at all universities.
Bradford is working with local GPs to encourage them to be more specific about whether any medical condition will affect a student's exam performance when writing a sick note.
One academic registrar said that "quite a high percentage" of claims were "works of fiction, to put it mildly". One student asked for special consideration because she had been up all night when her cat had kittens. Another said his sister had died but, when the university phoned his home to check, she answered the call.
"The number of students who have eight or nine dead grannies is amazing," commented the registrar. Some students had attempted to use forged medical certificates in their claims.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for student complaints said that concerns about how institutions handle mitigating circumstances make up about a fifth of all complaints and the numbers are rising. Mike Reddy, deputy adjudicator at the OIA, said: "Complaints vary, but they are often about illness on the day, bereavement, the death of all kinds of pets.
"For a lot of subjects it is important to get a lower second or an upper second and a third just won't do. If they want to do a PhD, it is important to get a good mark. Sometimes it means they will be thrown out of the course, so it is in their interest to pursue things as far as they can.
"The fact is so many students go to university now and it is competitive, so for certain jobs they have to have a good degree."