The British public is "incredibly committed" to the principle of a publicly funded higher education system, but there has been a "failure of leadership" in the sector to exploit this and create more vocal opposition to the government's reforms.
This is one of the views that will be put forward next week at University Futures, a public discussion hosted by the University of East London to mark the start of the academic term. It will consider the changing role of higher education in the UK and globally.
Speakers will include John Holmwood, professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham and a driving force behind the Campaign for the Public University, which recently helped to launch an alternative higher education White Paper.
Speaking to Times Higher Education ahead of the event, he said universities had "failed at the top" because of the inability of the sector's leaders to articulate why the withdrawal of direct public funding and market reforms in higher education presented such a danger to society as a whole.
Professor Holmwood said that although universities were not an immediate issue for the general public, compared with the NHS or secondary education, there was evidence that people understood their wider benefit.
But he added: "Nobody has strongly articulated why everybody has an interest in higher education, not just for your own children but for everybody's children."
Faiza Shaheen, a researcher with the New Economics Foundation, will also speak at the event on 11 October, which is being held in partnership with THE.
She said that in her view universities needed to engage more with local communities and in that way gain support from the public.
"It does seem that if universities want to make the point that they are having a more active role in society they need to put their name out there," said Dr Shaheen, who recently authored a report that tried to quantify the social value of the sector in cash terms.
Meanwhile, others will seek to put the debate in a global context. Terri Kim, lecturer in comparative higher education at Brunel University, said universities in the UK were becoming more integrated with the economy, but that there may be dangers to this approach.
She said countries that had been successful in using privately funded universities to drive prosperity and employment, such as South Korea, were now looking at how they could broaden higher education towards tackling more long-term issues affecting society.