Students at the heart of the system? Savvy market operators armed with the information they need to make informed judgements about which course at which institution offers the perfect balance of cost and benefit? For those working in the higher education "information, advice and guidance" (IAG) business - whether charities such as Brightside or university outreach services - we know that the reality is almost laughably far from this.
True, there is more information available than you can shake a stick at: a core plank of the government's scheme to empower the student consumer is to "publish more raw information from universities than ever before". Yet, what is utterly unclear is what students are going to do with that information in the absence of any coherent delivery system for advice and guidance. Because, just when it really matters that we get this right, the plug has been pulled on all the support systems simultaneously.
I'm not just talking about the demise of Aimhigher (although, since one obvious consequence of a higher education "market" is that institutions will prioritise marketing over altruistic outreach, a national infrastructure with an explicit, cross-sector widening-participation remit might seem worth inventing). No, there's another parallel market being created that should arguably be causing as much concern.
The education bill, when it receives Royal Assent in November, will give schools a new statutory duty - to secure access to impartial and independent careers guidance for every pupil in years 9 to 11. They will assess their students' needs and then develop appropriate careers guidance in partnership with independent providers. They will be individual procurers in an all-new IAG "market" - but one for which there is no ring-fenced budget and no centrally provided rules of engagement.
This duty won't be enforced until September 2012 but, in the current vacuum, many local authorities have taken advantage of this transfer of duty by making Connexions staff redundant en masse. So, gone is an infrastructure into which something better could have been fitted, and gone are many of the trained careers guidance professionals who ought to be the core of any new offering. And don't be lulled into a false sense of security by talk of the National Careers Service, to be put in place by April - that's for adults. The signs that higher education IAG will be prioritised by this service are not good.
So, the schools that already do this well will continue to give their students the advantage that sound advice and guidance makes. For those without access to such advice, the gulf will widen further. Universities provide masses of advice already, yet coverage is not universal and the market imperative risks seeing focused recruitment trump broader outreach work. This is a risk we must guard against.
You would expect someone like me, running a charity that seeks to connect, inform and inspire more people to achieve their potential through education, to argue strongly in favour of maintaining the broadest possible approach. But in my experience, most of the staff who have tirelessly delivered outreach over the past decade, much of it altruistic, also share my concern.
Silver bullets there are none, but one smart approach that some of Brightside's university partners are taking is to provide initiatives that are relevant to a number of priorities. We provide an e-mentoring service that universities (and others) can embed into their outreach activities - making ongoing mentoring support available beyond the summer school or shadowing scheme, and generally being the thread that binds intermittent, face-to-face activities. Our university partners also see this as a way to aid retention and success and promote employability (recent graduates and local employers mentor second and third years).
This is just one example, but whatever form such collaboration takes - and however much universities may rail against yet again having to make up for problems for which they are not responsible - it is crucial that it happens. We must respond to the serious and growing need for clear, impartial information and advice about the system. If we do not, it is not clear who will.