VC hopes student adviser will help him get back in touch with his undergraduates

Most students know nothing about the people who run their university. They probably don't know who the vice-chancellor is and they may never have met the board of governors, or know what it does. At the University of Hertfordshire, however, the top dogs are trying to break down the "them and us" divide and to find out more about student life – through student mentors.

Tim Wilson, the university's vice-chancellor, has his own mentor, a second-year undergraduate of Nigerian origin, Moses Fawehinmi, 20, who's studying economics and business and wants to be a financial analyst – in spite of the recession and the daily glut of gloomy news about banks. On the day of his interview with The Independent, he'd dressed to impress in an exquisite black jacket and fashionable tie.

When he contacts the VC – which he does from time to time, via a text message, sometimes on the spur of the moment, for a cup of coffee and a chat – he does not bother so much with his image. "We talk about how students see things, about the new student forum the university is building, and about the transfer of the law school to the De Havilland campus," Fawehinmi says. "These will be of benefit to students. We also talk about politics, economics and what's happening in the world. Sometimes we share things about our personal lives. I talk about my studies and what I want to do in life. He is very encouraging."

Fawenhinmi is ambitious. He works hard, clocking up four or five hours' study time a day in the learning resource centre in Hatfield after lectures and seminars. He often doesn't leave campus before 11pm for the drive home to Enfield, where he lives with his parents. Last summer, he won a place on a university summer school in Singapore, which he found fascinating and which taught him some global economics. This year, he is hoping to attend another summer school, this time in Korea.

Topics of conversation with the VC include how universities can act as engines for local economies by working closely with industry, helping start-up companies and producing well-qualified graduates for local business.

Fawenhinmi believes other universities would benefit from VCs having student mentors. "Not just vice-chancellors, but also for the governors," he says. "If they each had a student ambassador, they would get a feel for the issues and what they could improve on."

Wilson's first mentor, last year, was Ramat Tejani, who was vice-president of the Islamic Society and now works for a recruitment company. Her family was also originally from Africa – Ghana – and Wilson invited her parents as his guests to last year's graduation ceremony when she got a 2.1 in international business.

The fact that both mentors have been from ethnic minorities is no surprise. Hertfordshire has a high proportion of ethnic minority students; 45 per cent of the 23,500 students are black, Asian or Chinese. "I learnt so much from her in a year," Wilson says. "I didn't know enough about Islam, but I soon learnt things like how a Muslim woman – a female student – fits into Islamic culture."

Tejani had been on Hertfordshire's Year Abroad scheme, spending a year at the University of Connecticut in the United States and gaining a new perspective on the world. Wilson was so impressed by her experience that he tries harder now to promote the scheme and to ensure that all students are made aware of it. "She felt that she grew so much intellectually during that year," Wilson says.

The idea for the mentoring programme came from the university's board of governors, made up of the great and the good – and mainly aged over 50. "The board said that we needed to be able to talk to students," Wilson explains. "They talk to student representatives and they walk around, but they don't have the chance to sit down and talk in depth to students."

So almost all the board members adopted their own student mentor. This made the VC feel that he needed one as well, in addition to the good relationship he has with the president of the students' union and with the student executive. He finds out from his mentor how he gets to university (by car), where he parks (in a nearby residential estate), whether he has any difficulties studying and how he is viewed by others in his community. "It's understanding that side that I really find quite interesting," Wilson says.

The mentors are advertised on the university's virtual learning environment each year, and are chosen by the dean of students after an interview.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea. The NUS president, Wes Streeting, said that the student mentors might lead to the sidelining of democratically elected student representatives. "The selection of student representatives by institutions lacks both the legitimacy and independent voice provided by the students' unions," he said.