Vice-chancellors will be urged this week to become champions and advocates for campus museums amid fears that universities overlook the potential of the collections in their care.
A report published by the University Museums Group highlights the outreach and community work of the 100 campus museums and galleries in Britain.
But it warns that university museums often fall outside vice-chancellors'
thinking, even though they "press all the buttons" about widening participation.
It argues that young people from poor backgrounds whom universities are trying to reach often have their first experience of academe through school trips to a university museum.
University museums account for only 4 per cent of the museums and galleries across the country, but they house 30 per cent of the collections designated by the government as being of "outstanding" national and international importance.
Thirty-eight university museums in England and Scotland benefit from a core funding programme run by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.
These 38 museums attract more than 2 million visitors alone.
Nichola Johnson, chairwoman of the University Museums Group, said that while Oxford University's Ashmolean or Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam and the Manchester University Museum were well-known "high-street names" the museums on other campuses were little known.
But Ms Johnson raised concerns about professional standards and the lack of encouragement for university museum staff to improve their skills.
Ms Johnson said that the purpose of the report, published at the British Museum, was not to plead for more public funding but rather to raise the profile and to highlight the potential of university museums.
"What we are trying to do is to get universities and their museums to think more strategically, to become more politicised and to be more alert to what it is that university museums already do that presses buttons for universities that they may not even realise are being pressed - widening participation, outreach, engagement with regional communities and so on," Ms Johnson added.
"The museums do a fantastic amount of work in those areas, and the universities haven't got a clue that it's going on in many instances or, if they do, it is seen as something nice being done elsewhere and is not brought in to the university's strategic thinking."