Universities hit the national television news last week - a rare occasion. The picture showed students walking up and down pathways outside buildings with the newscaster's voice-over. It all presented a rather diffuse, even aimless, aura.
So what does it take to hit the headlines? It was the vice chancellors' deliberations about top-up fees. The rarity value does not include the frequent television appearances of university pundits-with-books-in-the background who cover a specialist subject. I am talking about higher education as a political topic. We appear on national news about as often as a politician who is well loved. Why is it so rare? We know we do a good job in difficult circumstances. Most are committed to its success despite our real fears about the direction it is forced to take. Whenever I try to discuss higher education matters with friends outside the system they tend to glaze over - that is unless they are parents of pre-university youngsters knowing the financial commitment they are about to make. Perhaps my poor advocacy is to blame. Perhaps the real reason is that, although higher education is in trouble, it is considered to be lower down the league table in importance compared with part-time students, further education, schools, nursery education, the unskilled and the unemployed - the list is endless. No politician will ever admit it even if their researchers will.
So what do we do if others think we are relatively unimportant? Think short-term or long-term? In the short-term universities have a choice of being privileged institutions with restrictions on student numbers or being privileged institutions for those students able to pay an entry tax. Even some of our so-called friends are saying there are other higher priorities and that private funding is inevitable.
This appalling malaise points to a lack of confidence in our vital role and more importantly the long-term consequences of our actions. Vice chancellors must know, because they are nothing if not internationalists, that once so called top-up fees are introduced, it is a one-way street. Although it would not be publicly admitted, top-up fees are a gift for governments especially just before an election. Cut the taxes, raise the fees (250 per cent in the United States over the past 15 years). Average tuition fees in America are now 20 per cent of average household income compared with 13 per cent since the mid-1970s. Secret price-fixing cartels and league-table chart-fixing are said to be the order of the day in the US.
The short-term effect will obviously be bad for students. However, the most important effect is the long-term fundamental change that will take place in higher education - students working full-time to pay their way, higher drop-out rates, lower standards.
I am the first to accept that the short-term dilemma is acute. The amount of public money spent on each student has dropped by 25 per cent in the past five years. Vice chancellors, who as individuals have a relatively short-term lease in universities, have a duty of care to the long-term future. The rare sighting on television news must have brought home the awesome responsibility they have.
A green light to top-up fees by vice chancellors would mean first gear into the one-way street. The choice is between letting politicians off the hook now or keeping them (and the electorate) on the hook for the future.
Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the Institute of Education student union, a member of the national executive of Unison and of the TUC General Council.