As the government's higher education reforms push the university sector ever closer to the marketplace, with students now 'consumers' pursuing 'best value for money', it seems obvious that universities could learn lessons from businesses when pushing their 'product'.
Indeed, some already have: for while the Russell Group's reputation might be based on the research excellence of their members, they have successfully converted this into a prestigious 'brand' much coveted by students and employers alike, something elaborated upon by Alan Milburn's recent report into social mobility and higher education, which pointed out that the country's top graduate recruiters focus the majority of their efforts on five Russell Group universities.
Yet Milburn also revealed evidence that this stranglehold on higher education doesn't just risk suffocating the employment chances of students graduating from other universities, but also risks blocking higher education as a route to social mobility as a whole. He's right to point out that scrapping EMA has deprived too many students of a lifeline for staying on in education after 16, and that universities should divert their resources away from tuition fee waivers towards more targeted outreach support. He also acknowledges that many universities have done and continue to do great outreach work, yet much of this has been on an ad hoc basis with universities working in relative isolation and without sharing models of best practice.
Of course, there are admirable exceptions here; the Realising Opportunities project run by a partnership of 12 research-intensive universities and Brightside, and which targets students from under-represented groups, is already implementing some of the proposals that Milburn makes, such as reduced grade offers for participating students. Yet it seems that, in thinking like businesses, too many universities regard other institutions as competitors rather than potential collaborators in the rush to secure students with AAB A-level grades, to the detriment of academically able students whose educational background might have held them back from attaining the highest grades, and to the ultimate expense of the wider economy when a source of talent is essentially cut off.
Not that every idea inherited from the business world is necessarily suspect, especially if they promote innovation and a more efficient use of resources. However, perhaps the most effective strategy for widening participation would be for higher education providers to think not necessarily like businesses, but with businesses. Milburn says that universities should co-operate to identify activity that provides the greatest impact, and work in partnership with businesses, which sounds nebulous on paper, but which could provide a solid structure for more effective work in the future. For while both universities and schools now have more responsibilities towards widening participation and improving progression than ever - the former held to targets in their access agreements and the latter now with a statutory duty to provide Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) on careers - the funding situation and the end of Aimhigher and Connexions means many of the current models are unfit to deliver them.
We need to identify what universities and businesses can, and can't, do in this arena, and then create regional consortia to offer an holistic package to schools that they can properly engage with and which will fulfil their IAG needs.
This would include subject-based enrichment activities, HE application information sessions, careers visits into schools, work experience and paid internship opportunities, post-16 options sessions, and mentoring projects where employees volunteer to give their time to help students explore their options and build their skills. None of this is rocket science and all of it is being done already but provision is patchy and uncoordinated at best, and too often fails to reach those who need it most.
A truly coordinated approach would have countless benefits. It would go some way towards addressing the commonplace complaint from businesses that young people don't have the employability skills and commercial awareness they need. It would broaden the narrow relationships between a handful of universities and the country's top employers by letting many more schools, universities and businesses build their own relationships.
And it has the potential not only to widen participation but also widen the perspectives amongst young people; exposed to a diverse but coherent range of information from a consortium of colleges, businesses and universities, students would gain a clearer understanding of the many paths to success, and which one might suit them best.
The economic crisis which makes this work more important than ever will also make it difficult to pull off. Yet Brightside's work on online mentoring projects linking universities, schools and businesses has shown that such thinking and collaborations can produce real results when it comes to both increasing young people's ambitions, and their abilities to achieve them. That's a prize worth fighting for, and one much easier to win if everyone joins forces.