Rising undergraduate numbers combined with staffing cuts are damaging the student experience, according to a report from the higher education quality watchdog, writes Phil Baty.
Students are getting poor academic and personal support at some universities because tutorial systems have been put under "strain", the Quality Assurance Agency report says.
The report, based on an analysis of quality audit reports at 70 separate institutions, represents an extremely rare foray into political territory by the agency.
It raises questions about the effect of the Government's policy of increasing student numbers at a time when students expect better-than-ever quality in return for tuition fees of up to £3,000 a year.
Although the overview report says there are "many features of good practice" in the sector, it adds: "Some personal tutoring systems have been placed under strain by expansion in student numbers, decreased staffing levels and other factors."
Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: "The QAA's review reaches a stark conclusion: that expanding student numbers on the cheap is damaging higher education. Hear! Hear! But will the Government listen?"
Of the 70 audit reports, good practice in student guidance and support is identified in 58 institutions. Some 28 institutions received recommendations for improvements to their practices.
The QAA says that there is "evidence" that personal tutoring systems in many institutions "do not always work as intended".
The report says that of the many features of good practice in academic and personal support, "few relate to personal tutoring". A third of the recommendations for improvements fall into the category of personal tutoring.
The most common criticism is the "variability" of personal tutoring arrangements, with students reporting "inconsistency" in the number and frequency of tutorials not only between departments, but within departments.
"At least one audit report states that students who met the audit team had themselves never met their personal tutors," the report says.
Several institutions did not have proper guidance on how personal tutoring should work and had no clear "minimum requirements" for students.
Some had guidance that was not adhered to. Others relied on students, not lecturers, to initiate meetings, leaving less vocal students without support.
The QAA says that many institutions had recognised weaknesses and had attempted to improve their systems.