Nicky Stanley and Jill Manthorpe argue that the one-to-one relationship of student and tutor needs to be cultivated and not pruned because of pressures
The role of personal tutor can be a thankless task and may rely more on skills acquired outside academia than training inside.
Yet personal tutors attract few plaudits despite the significance of their performance to academic success. As their role becomes more complex and demanding, academics are questioning whether universities are expecting the service they deliver to be offered on the cheap.
The tasks of a personal tutor are varied. Large institutions need to offer students a stable point of reference and access to someone who can act as a guide, mentor and advocate. This role is counterbalanced by that of representing the interests and demands of the institution so that students know what is expected of them.
With the shift towards modular and joint degree programmes and part-time study, students are less under the influence of peers and need a mentor who monitors their progress.
The Padshe (personal and academic development for students in higher education) project is sited at five universities. Led by Nottingham, it has developed a range of structured formats that can be used by the personal tutor and student to record, evaluate and reflect on their learning.
The aim is to move away from a "safety-net" model of personal tuition. The care role is controversial. In their anxiety not to be in loco parentis, universities are swift to insist that students are independent adults and to disclaim a duty of care.
Yet the Heads of University Counselling Services has reported that more students are suffering from psychological problems. This is confirmed by our research at the University of Hull,where 35 per cent of personal tutors considered that they had had experience of students with mental health problems in the past five years.
This survey found that nearly a third of the problems encountered by personal tutors were described as severe or life-threatening.
A survey of students at the University of Leicester found that the personal tutor was the second most frequently identified source of help for students, with only friends and family cited more.
The primary task of the personal tutor confronted with a student who appears to have mental health problems may be to encourage and support him or her in the difficult task of seeking appropriate specialist help from counselling or medical services.
This can be a time-consuming process and the Hull survey found that many personal tutors felt anxious and uncertain as to how effective they had been.
For the personal tutors to provide an effective frontline service in the chain of student support, they need to have clear definitions of their role and to be aware of the boundaries.
Most personal tutors have not received specialist training in counselling. They and the institution need to acknowledge this and recognise the point at which students should be encouraged to seek professional help.
Personal tutors also need to be confident that they will be supported, and training can be integrated into staff induction.
Guidance on confidentiality is essential. The personal tutors responding to the Hull survey cited the need for confidentiality as a significant barrier to effective support for students. The focus groups included in this study indicated that health professionals attempting to communicate with university staff about individual students have their own codes of confidentiality, which need to be clarified in relation to the university's codes and practices.
Families and health professionals alike experienced difficulties in finding the right person to talk to.
In the face of expanding student numbers, many universities have been unable to identify a personal tutor for every student and have instead adopted a system whereby an identified member of staff carries pastoral responsibility for a large cohort of students.
The risks inherent in this have yet to be calculated, but such arrangements are likely to result in support being targeted at those students whose problems are so pressing as to demand priority.
Embracing this system undermines the preventive role of the personal tutor and increases the necessity for students' problems to reach crisis proportions before they can receive help.
Nicky Stanley and Jill Manthorpe are lecturers in social work at the School of Community and Health Studies, University of Hull.