Someone once said that universities are full of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. That's not quite true. Universities are full of extraordinary people doing extraordinary things: people with huge passion and an unerring belief in what they do. This is what inspires them despite the funding cuts, the constant erosion of their public standing and the bureaucracy that ensnares them. It is also what makes my job a privilege and a joy.
But even more extraordinary is the fact that this inspirational activity is not communicated successfully to the wider world. Universities are one of the country's most successful economic drivers, innovators and inventors par excellence, and educators of almost half the eligible population. But they have an image problem. In the eyes of the national media, "boffins" study the obvious and publish one contradictory report after another; university education is all about Oxbridge admissions, tuition fees and graduate-salary premiums.
Universities are strangely unloved: the nation has not taken them to its heart in the way it has the NHS or schools. So sweeping journalistic cynicism aside, Times Higher Education has launched #loveHE, an all-embracing and unashamed campaign to champion higher education in all its multifaceted glory.
As its name implies, #loveHE started life on Twitter, where tweeters have been enthusiastic in their declarations of love: "because it means I never have to stop asking 'why?' (I get paid to be curious, how cool is that?)" (@AstroMeg); "learning that will change you and your world" (@yrathro); "because it goes a long way to bring out the highest ideals in people - and society" (@belindawebb); and "because it asks people to dream of a better world and inspires people to make that a reality" (@UVenus).
In this issue, actor Sir Patrick Stewart offers a very personal reflection on higher education's impact and its importance for the future. He says that he believes his own experience stands as a metaphor for the transformative power of university education.
He knows its value, but what of those waiting in the wings, the undergraduates of the future? For our main feature this week, we asked schoolchildren about their perceptions of the academy. There was a strong focus on employment - but also recognition of the intellectual riches on offer, the opportunity "to really learn about something", to pursue "a passion", a place for "people to achieve their dreams".
Dreams, alas, do not come cheap, and when cuts must be made, every sector argues for its exemption, including universities. "Is it special pleading?" asks Sir Patrick. "I hardly think so. A reversal in the expansion and quality of higher education would have serious implications for individuals, for organisations, for the future of our country ... The UK should be proud of and jealously guard its university sector."
For the children with dreams and aspirations yet unfulfilled, the cuts have not filtered through, but work prospects loom large - that message has certainly hit home. A university education is for getting a better job, it's "a differentiator for employers". They want to attend "because I don't want to be a failure", "I want to have a brighter future."
They know a degree can help with that, but we must convince them that universities are much, much more than vehicles for getting a job and staffing industry. A higher education is not just for business, it's for life. #loveHE.