Do universities provide a public service? The answer is unquestionably "yes". An advanced society needs trained people in increasing numbers, and only a university can produce them. It needs the kind of research that companies do not carry out at their own expense and for which a university is the natural home. Perhaps most important, academics are uniquely good at providing one vital public service: telling uncomfortable truths to the powerful.
But in Britain this public service is not provided by the public sector, in contrast to countries across the world with state universities whose staff are government employees. Most universities have never been public bodies, and it is now 15 years since polytechnics left local authority control.
UK universities are free-standing, non-profit organisations. But as the Universities Secretary, John Denham, told the Labour Party conference last week, things are not quite that simple.
Despite the introduction of student fees, most universities are overwhelmingly dependent on the state for money. The funding and research councils are putting nearly £12 billion into them this financial year. Universities cannot ignore government priorities even if they want to. Any university is free to cut loose from central funding and become completely independent, relying on charging high fees to UK as well as foreign students, but none has regarded giving up funding council money as a serious option.
The real issue for universities is exactly what "public service" means in the modern era. While academics and university managers may approve of many of the things Government asks them to do - such as widening the social pool from which they draw their students - there is no guarantee that all state initiatives are going to be welcome.
And despite the high sense of public service of many people in universities, their daily lives are driven by more immediate and complex considerations. Fee-paying students who demand high levels of service from their lecturers may regard their education as a private service for them, not as a public good. Employers have been given wide powers over course content and may well take an increasing interest in what happens in universities. Above all, institutions are competing for students and the money they bring. Everyone knows that departments that cannot attract students are in line for severe restructuring at best and closure at worst.
At the same time, Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, is right to point out that the demands on universities are growing. Nobody could argue with the idea of wider participation, which is inherently a public good. But it is asking too much to expect universities to cure society's divisions by means of near-universal higher education. Students come from a vast range of school and family backgrounds. After three or four years they leave. Despite big improvements in British society over recent decades, they then enter a world of work where their gender, accent and skin colour will continue to be a factor in how they are treated.
But Ms Fox is on less solid ground when she calls for university education to be standardised across the system irrespective of who is taking it. We have yet to find out how degrees will change as more people take them. But it seems that students from families with little experience of higher education are going to want courses that will appeal directly to an employer. If such qualifications expand the capacity of the British workforce and give people a genuine insight into advanced learning, we should not worry if they do not look like those degrees offered at the UK's ancient universities.