Students at two fifths of universities have been hit by a lecturers' pay dispute, a survey suggests.
Members of lecturers' union the AUT are refusing to set exams
According to a survey of 85 institutions by the Press Association, 39% said they had been affected by the AUT and Natfhe unions' marking boycott.
Several universities are drawing up plans to award degrees on the basis of marks or credits available.
The unions have rejected a 12.6% rise over three years - they want 23% to make up for declining real earnings.
The organisation representing employers, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association (UCEA) met on Friday to discuss the situation.
They concluded that their offer of 12.6% over three years could not be increased.
The chairman, Geoffrey Copland, said: "This offer is at the very limits of, and for some institutions beyond, what is affordable."
The AUT, whose members are also refusing to set exams, said the employers had "passed up a golden opportunity to bring this dispute to an end".
General secretary Sally Hunt said: "We know the cash is available, as does anyone who has read our pay claim."
The Press Association survey found universities including Birmingham, Loughborough, Newcastle and Bournemouth were drawing up plans to award degrees on the basis of marks available.
They insisted this would not compromise the academic quality of degrees awarded.
Ms Hunt said many academics would have concerns.
"There is a real issue of quality here, which calls into question the value of the degrees which we offer to people," she said.
Birmingham University said it was drawing up contingency plans as some exams have been cancelled already.
A spokesman said: "Existing legislation is being extended that allows us to award degrees based on available existing marks, within a certain threshold.
"Interim awards will be made, provided that the examination board and the external examiner are satisfied that there is sufficient information available.
"No measures are being taken that will undermine the standards which the university applies to the award of its degrees and the measures are based on fairness and equity."
Other key findings from the survey of 85 responses from around 120 universities contacted were:
- 19% were cancelling or postponing exams
- at 27% of the universities which responded tutors had refused to mark some course work or were withholding marks
- four universities gave figures for the number of students caught up in exam cancellations - totalling 1,400 students.
The shadow higher education spokesman, Boris Johnson, said lecturers were using a "completely disproportionate means" to make their point.
He said: "There is a lot of public sympathy for lecturers and academics who are on comparatively low pay, who work very hard, who are blizzarded with paperwork.
"Nobody doubts their commitment to the students and their calling as academics but all that sympathy is being forfeited by this boycott."