I COULDN'T work out Anna's essays. She was clever and had done the reading, yet for every coherent sentence there were five of gibberish. Her work was all the more difficult to mark because these incoherent ramblings consisted of all the right words but jumbled into a nonsense.

'Heathcliff in house while Cathy was but now. Yorkshire winds on the moors and Emily Bronte walked. Heathcliff personified Emily Bronte's fears of her own creativity, which stood in radical contrast to the ideal of Victorian womenhood. The perception Mr Lockwood sat.' And so on for another 2,000 words once a month for eight months.

What on earth was going on? I wrote encouragingly to Anna, telephoned her Open University counsellor and arranged a private tutorial. She was a heavy woman with a kind face. She clearly found it difficult to concentrate on our conversation. Eventually it came out: she was hearing voices and could hardly, as they say, think straight. She believed her neighbour was broadcasting into her flat and that he came in with his own set of keys to set the microphones while she was away, although she had twice changed the locks to prevent him.

Given her state of mind, it was astonishing that she had managed to complete any work. Unfortunately, Anna's case was far from unique. In each of my five years as an Open University course tutor, at least one of an average class of 25 students appeared to be mentally ill. These students were often easily recognisable from their incoherent essays. Thomas, for example, never spoke, but instead tore paper into tiny pieces during tutorials, or stood outside in the corridor with his face pressed against the teaching room's glass partition; and he was usually among the last to leave.

Another student wrote me letters filled with abuse about women (ie, me) who used men as playthings to exercise their feelings of power. He went into great detail about the way in which I 'used' my husband sexually and as a servant.

My feelings about these students were mixed. On the one hand, I felt desperately sorry for them. But there were also times when I felt frightened. Imagine going to a tutorial in some isolated centre on a Saturday when there is no one else about and knowing that an abusive misogynist may turn up. But, more than anything, I felt ignorant about how help them - and that the Open University had let both tutor and student down.

Robin Pask, a student who admitted to the manslaughter of Dr Elizabeth Howe, an OU tutor, at a summer school at York University last year, has been sent to a secure mental hospital. His trial was halted last week when the judge ruled that he was mentally unfit to continue his defence. Pask was not a student of Dr Howe's, and the court was told he selected her room, down the corridor from his own, at random. Pask's mother, Margaret, told the court that weeks before the killing her son became withdrawn. 'I had noticed that he was not being careful about his appearance. He was not joining in and would watch TV or lie on the couch.' He was found wearing Dr Howe's clothes and with socks stuffed down her top.

On beginning an Open University course, students are each allocated a tutor-counsellor to give them advice over the years - what courses to do, what to do if they have a serious illness or trauma that might affect their course work, and any problems they may have with the OU, for example. A student's course tutor changes from course to course and, therefore, from year to year, and is only responsible for helping with academic problems.

Every educational institution has a few disturbed students. But the Open University is different: for one thing, it operates a policy of open access - anyone can apply to do an OU course. Unlike conventional universities, there is no formal screening of students. Educationally, this is a marvellous policy, but the OU does not provide the support students or course tutors need if the 'open door' idea is going to work. And OU students need more support than their conventional counterparts because of the large amount of 'distance teaching' by post.

In my area, tutor training occurs only every two years or so. When one tutor insisted on discussing mentally ill students, the 'training' consisted of a senior tutor-counsellor admitting that he knew nothing about the subject and initiating a discussion about our feelings and attitudes towards mental illness. What possible use can this be to a tutor with a student such as Anna?

Reliably good support for students is also lacking. Anna's tutor-counsellor wrote to her telling her to pull her socks up, get a grip on herself and do some serious work; Thomas's was concerned but was at an utter loss and would rather not have become involved. In other cases, tutor-counsellors had had no contact with the students during the years they had been with the OU, knew nothing about them and were not interested in doing anything to help. Permanent salaried counselling staff at the regional office felt that students with severe mental illness were not their problem.

The lack of good tutor-counsellors probably reflects the lack of rewards. The OU pays badly considering that students can be demanding, both in time and emotional energy. Some telephone at all hours of the day and night, including bank holidays and Christmas day, expecting to have lengthy conversations with a tutor who is not being paid for this time. I suspect that many of the part-time staff with whom I came into contact felt that they were not being compensated for this responsibility, particularly if the student in question appeared to be mentally ill. Given the considerable sums that OU students pay for their courses, they have a right to demand a better service than they are


Why is OU security for its tutors so bad? Many of the part-time tutors are women, and many men have problems with women in authority. Are mentally disturbed men more likely to have difficulty in coping with a woman tutor? Most face-to-face teaching is done in the evenings and at weekends in the deserted buildings of other institutions. There may be one or two other classes in the same block, but this is different from the thronging groups of students in universities or at evening classes. And yet, apart from making sure I was never alone with him, there was no protection for me from Thomas, whose behaviour I found terrifying.

Given the increase in the number of mentally ill people 'released' into 'care in the community', the Open University can expect to have more unrecognised students with mental problems applying from home, rather than from institutions. Were the numbers of disturbed students I had during my career 'just my luck', or is this a trend across the OU?

The Open University says that disciplinary procedures can be set in motion if a student becomes a cause for concern, resulting in possible suspension, and that these procedures are under constant review. It plans to be even more vigilant now that the number of students with psychiatric problems may increase. Even so, it has some important questions to answer about its responsibilities to both its students and staff.

The author wishes to remain anonymous.

(Photograph omitted)