In talking to audiences outside universities (some of whom may be graduates), I am struck by the level of curiosity about, and enthusiasm for, ideas and the quest for greater understanding, whether in history and literature, or physics and biology, or any number of other fields. Some members of these audiences may not have had the chance to study these things themselves, but they very much want their children to have the opportunity to do so; others may have enjoyed only limited and perhaps not altogether happy experience of higher education in their own lives, but have now in their adulthood discovered a keen amateur reading interest in these subjects; others still may have retired from occupations that largely frustrated their intellectual or aesthetic inclinations and are now hungry for stimulation.
Such audiences do not want to be told that we judge the success of a university education by how much more graduates can earn than non-graduates, any more than they want to hear how much scholarship and science may indirectly contribute to GDP. They are, rather, susceptible to the romance of ideas and the power of beauty; they want to learn about far-off times and faraway worlds; they expect to hear language used more inventively, more exactly, more evocatively than it normally is in their workaday world; they want to know that, somewhere, human understanding is being pressed to its limits, unconstrained by immediate practical outcomes.
These audiences are not all of one mind, needless to say, and not all sections of society are equally well represented among them. At various points in their lives their members may have other priorities, and there will always be competing demands on their interests and sympathies. But it is noticeable, and surely regrettable, how little the public debate about universities in contemporary Britain makes any kind of appeal to this widespread appreciation on the part of ordinary intelligent citizens that there should be places where these kinds of inquiries are being pursued at their highest level. Part of the problem may be that while universities are spectacularly good at producing new forms of understanding, they are not always very good at explaining what they are doing when they do this.