A YouGov poll has recently identified the key words most associated with 'university' by the general public. Rather worryingly, the top results suggest 'fees', 'expensive' and 'costs', rather than ones we'd hope such as 'research', 'teaching' or 'innovation'.
It just goes to show the size of the battle that UK HEIs face. We need to be much more proactive in explaining exactly what universities do - showcasing important research, and demonstrating the impact of inspirational teaching.
Explaining this to potential students is, believe it or not, the easier part of this challenge. These are people already predisposed to thinking about higher education, and often already have some knowledge of what universities do. The difficult part is the conversation with the individual who has never interacted with an HEI, or indeed can't even tell you what the acronym HE stands for.
That is real battle: genuinely embedding universities in diverse communities, which recognise the importance of the institution even if they're not personally connected to it. Only once that happens are we likely to see these results change.