More productive partnerships between schools, colleges and universities are vital to boost student demand for higher education.
That is the message coming from the responses to a Higher Education Funding Council for England consultation on supply and demand that reaches its deadline today.
The study showed chronic under-recruitment culminating in almost 10,000 university places going unfilled in autumn 2000, the vast majority in post-1992 institutions. The under-recruitment threatens the government's manifesto pledge to ensure that half of young people should experience higher education by 2010.
Closer partnerships could stimulate the demand for higher education and would also help under-recruiting institutions to reshape provision and hence boost enrolments, according to the responses.
The Association of University Teachers said: "Institutions perform best when working in harmony with other education providers in their locality. Regional partnerships should be encouraged and resourced between schools, sixth forms, further education colleges and universities."
Lecturers' union Natfhe wrote: "We do not support a model of unrestrained competition amongst institutions for additional student numbers but would like to see the funding method developed so that institutional co-operation is encouraged.
"Higher and further education providers should be encouraged to look at the overall need for certain kinds of courses and provision within geographical areas in order to ensure that institutions are not competing on the basis of an over-supply of places in particular subject areas - nor, conversely, that course closures effectively shut off supply of certain courses in certain localities.
"We support the model of additional places being available where there is clearly net additional demand across the sector rather than on the basis of increasing supply in one institution at the expense of supply in another."
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers said: "Further education is the springboard to higher education and must not be squeezed out by higher education. Partnerships are vital."
All three unions criticised the funding arrangements for young people in higher education. They called for support to be targeted on the least well-off.
The ATL added: "The change in funding arrangements for young people in higher education will surely tend to limit demand, particularly on the part of young people from less well-off backgrounds, and is most likely to be a financial disincentive. Incentives have been taken away, with grants replaced by loans for those from many less well-off families."