Universities UK surveyed more than 2,000 Britons aged over 15 to discover their views on higher education.
An overwhelming majority call for the government to protect universities, with 90 per cent saying it is vital for the state to invest in them and 80 per cent agreeing that funding for universities should either increase or stay the same.
Just 8 per cent think that public funding for the academy should be cut from 2009 levels.
Of those polled, 25 per cent had studied at a UK university and more than 33 per cent profess a “good understanding” of how higher education is funded.
Yet 45 per cent say they have never had any contact with a university.
Despite this, the majority (60 per cent) agree that “overall it will be good for this country if more people get a university-level qualification”. But there is also support for fees: more than 50 per cent say that students should contribute financially to their education.
The poll was carried out by Ipsos MORI as part of UUK’s What’s the Big Idea? campaign, which seeks to raise public awareness of the benefits of higher education.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of UUK, said it was “really encouraging” to see a high level of support for universities among members of the public.
“It is more important than ever that the public gets behind us to ensure our universities are safeguarded for the future,” she said.
She added that the academy had a vital role to play in the UK’s economic development.
Universities are facing the prospect of swingeing cuts to state funding in the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, which will be unveiled next month.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the UUK poll “shows that the public understands the important role universities play in wider society and why we should continue to invest in higher education. We all benefit…whether we study at university or not, and I am pleased, although perhaps not surprised, that the public recognises this.”