Mass higher education has damaged the relationship between students and personal tutors, leaving some students feeling alienated from academics who fear being "swamped".
A study from the University of Brighton, which will be published in next month's Teaching in Higher Education journal, found that some tutors had adapted successfully to rising student numbers and that many students were satisfied with their tutors.
But others felt the sector was still coming to terms with the impact of mass education on student-tutor relationships.
The study, based on interviews with 24 undergraduate personal tutors and 37 second and third-year students at Brighton, found that a lack of contact with tutors was a key issue raised by students.
Most agreed that they would like tutors to "adopt a more proactive role in monitoring their academic progress". One said: "He hasn't contacted me or anything to find out if I am still alive or ... if I am still able to cope with university or even if I am still here ... I am not going to see him if he is not concerned in that sort of way."
Students perceived tutors to be too busy to take a meaningful interest in their welfare. "They actually say, 'Don't just drop in because we will be busy. You will have to make an appointment.' But sometimes you can't. If you have got a problem it is there and then, and you want to go and see someone."
The study indicated that some students went to other staff better able to meet their needs, but a few had not been able to find anyone.
The authors, Dawn Stephen, Paul O'Connell and Mike Hall of the School of Applied Social Science at Brighton, said: "This troubling finding rendered it vital to identify what was contributing to this sense of alienation. One clear factor emerged: the system of mass higher education."
Tutors reported being unable to prioritise personal tutoring in the face of competing pressures. "I am quite open to see them," said one. "But I wouldn't seek them out ... If I had to seek them out then ... I couldn't do that in terms of my time: admin, teaching, research, applying for grants."
Others said they worried about being able to meet the demand should they make themselves more available. One tutor said: "How do you make yourself more approachable without being swamped?"
The academics surveyed also highlighted how students' psychological needs and resilience had changed as numbers had increased. "More and more students have more and more problems ... I am amazed at how some of them carry on."
While some staff were very clear about their role, others complained that they were having to cope with situations beyond their academic remit. "I am not a counsellor. I don't want to be a counsellor; it is not my job ... You are being thrust into that world all the time, and a lot of people can't bear it," said one interviewee.
Dennis Hayes, honorary professor at Oxford Brookes University and author of The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, believes a "therapy culture" at school has created "infantilised" students who cannot cope with everyday challenges. At university level, they put extra pressure on staff.