The government has been unabashed in its attempts to foster competition between universities. Nowhere is the market ethos becoming more embedded than in the battle for future students. The ethos has even spread to outreach work, which is designed to encourage young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter higher education.
The end of the government's national outreach programme, Aimhigher, means that universities are now free to choose which organisations they work with in this area. As a result, a year after the end of Aimhigher and as the last drops of Lifelong Learning Network funding are spent, outreach work in England looks quite different.
The shift away from a system driven by direct state investment has brought some advantages. The fact that institutions are now able to choose who to work with has fostered innovation and exciting new collaborations. In particular, it has encouraged existing and new civil society or third-sector organisations to enter the field with fresh approaches. A recent report for the National HE STEM Programme, Unblocking the Pipeline: How the Third Sector Can Increase HE Participation in STEM Subjects, highlighted the way in which some of these organisations are performing a vital role in enabling progression to science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. By being better able to identify and support particular groups of learners, harnessing the creative potential of students and deploying technology in new ways, the third sector is supporting progression to these subjects in ways that universities alone could not. Elsewhere, other new organisations have formed, such as the Higher Education Access Rewarding Transforming partnership in West Yorkshire, the Progression Trust in the Midlands and AccessHE in London.
All this exciting activity, however, masks some serious market failure. The even geographical coverage of virtually all schools and colleges in England is gone: the engagement of schools and colleges in university outreach is now a postcode lottery for learners. The picture is similarly uneven for specific learner groups: for those with disabilities, those in care or potential mature students, contact with the world of higher education is largely down to luck.
Collaboration between higher education institutions, the major players in this market, could ameliorate these failures. The Office for Fair Access is trying hard to encourage such partnerships. Given the costs of replication and of not sharing best practice, and the difficulty of tracking students who encounter one university through its outreach work but end up applying to another, the case for collaboration is compelling. It is happening, but the pressure either to compete or to "free ride" on the work of others is too strong to allow a nationwide minimum standard of service.
The government is very proud of its claim that spending on access could reach record levels of almost £1 billion a year by the middle of the decade - but it needs to set aside a tiny proportion of this to make the outreach market work. For less than 1 per cent of this spend, it could build an access infrastructure across all schools and colleges that serves all learners. This would result in far better "bang" for the government's billion-pound "buck". Another state-run project such as Aimhigher is not the way to do this, however. Far better would be an "access endowment": a time-limited investment in third-sector organisations with the expertise and the track record to engage schools, colleges and higher education institutions across England.
No new money would be needed here. Where could the funds come from? The Higher Education Funding Council for England's widening participation allocation would be a good place to start.
Rhetoric about social mobility from politicians and policymakers has ramped up in the past two years. The government has been willing to balance its commitment to the market with direct investment in this area, creating, for example, the Education Endowment Foundation and the National Scholarship Programme. So why not do the same for outreach? If we are to encourage more bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve their potential at university - and for the rhetoric to match the reality - a greater balance between competition and collaboration is needed.