Several generations have been substantially switched off to further learning. They share a memory of education as something negative, remedial, enjoyed, if at all, under a regime of compulsion.
How do providers awaken this sleeping giant? I am convinced that we need to become harder edged in widening participation and should take a business-led approach to increase both market share and the market.
The marketing environment is often dismissed as something rather tacky, incompatible with higher education. Quite the opposite is true. Marketing is more than simple promotion: it includes designing appropriate programmes and modes of delivery. And people do respond to effective marketing.
Defining our market as simply higher education may be myopic. Education is "lifestyle", and can be marketed as such - like going to the gym or spending a night in the pub or club. But it has an overwhelming advantage - it can go beyond lifestyle by changing and enhancing lives.
A market-led approach would be a positive way to attract more people from under-represented groups, particularly as widening participation has come in from the periphery in continuing education departments and specialised access units to become core to institutional business.
Its greater importance to institutional income, combined with the receptivity of people to marketing messages, provides us with a great opportunity. Success would then be measured not in handfuls of additional students from disadvantaged groups, but in thousands.
Recently, I joined the Access Advisory Partnership, a revamped consultancy service that provides objective, customised advice to higher education institutions on how to attract more students from under-represented groups. Thanks to support from all four United Kingdom funding bodies, the AAP will be able to provide its service at a heavily subsidised rate to 20 higher education institutions this year and another 30 in 2002.
With my background in credit-based learning and corporate marketing, I share with all my consultant colleagues in the AAP a commitment to widening participation as the key to building a prosperous economy and a fairer, more inclusive society.
Let us start promoting our education as something people want to buy. If we, as practitioners do not believe that to be true, then surely no one else will.
Alex MacLennan Assistabnt principal and director of Ayr campus, Paisley University.