A group of University of Southern Maine students who have been protesting a round of budget cuts at their university decided last week to broaden their focus. One goal, the group decided, would be to address the level of state funding for public higher education in Maine.

The decision to tackle a broader, systemic issue rather than focus exclusively on the rejection of individual position and program cuts is a welcome one.

Funding, however, is only one issue that needs to be addressed as the University of Maine System grapples with generally shrinking enrollments, a transformation in the way education is delivered, intensifying competition from private institutions, and conflicting desires from Maine residents to either remain intact more or less as currently structured or to overhaul itself in a major way.

The mandate for an overhaul has been alive and well for decades. Repeated strategic plans and initiatives have set the stage for significant restructuring. They’ve made the case that more intercampus coordination is an imperative, that each campus needs to establish a niche and develop an academic program accordingly, and that the seven-university system needs to achieve administrative efficiencies.

Over time, Maine’s universities have tried to rework their identities and structure. What is today the University of Maine at Augusta’s Bangor campus, for example, has at times been the South Campus of the University of Maine, the University of Maine at Bangor, Penobscot Valley Community College, Bangor Community College of the University of Maine at Orono and University College of Bangor.

The University of Maine was once the University of Maine at Orono. The University of Southern Maine — itself the product of a merger — was once the University of Maine at Portland-Gorham. The University of Maine at Augusta was once a satellite campus of the University of Maine.

But in recent decades Maine’s universities have resisted major changes in overall structure. In 2004, then-Chancellor Joseph Westphal floated a draft strategic plan that proposed folding the University of Maine at Augusta into the University of Southern Maine and creating the University of Northern Maine from the university system’s campuses in Fort Kent, Presque Isle and Machias.

Those recommendations didn’t make it into the strategic plan’s final draft, and the Maine Legislature in 2005 wrote into state law that the University of Maine System would comprise seven distinct universities with campuses in Orono, Augusta, Farmington, Fort Kent, Machias, Presque Isle, Portland and Gorham.

Since the seven-campus structure became state law, funding from the state has come to assume a smaller portion of the University of Maine System’s entire budget, while tuition and student fees have made up a growing portion. State funding for Maine universities peaked in the 2007-08 academic year at $201 million.

There’s no simple way to set the University of Maine System on a sustainable path that keeps higher education affordable for Maine students. But the answer starts with an honest conversation about expectations that needs to involve the Legislature just as much as it involves the university community.

That conversation needs to address a few distinct questions: How much state funding does the University of Maine System need to keep education affordable and retain the structure that’s articulated in Maine law? The amount could be significantly more than what Maine spends today.

If Maine lawmakers determine they’re unwilling to devote the amount needed to sustain the structure Maine has, another question becomes relevant: Given the amount of funding available, how can the university system operate sustainably while keeping education affordable? The answer to that question might involve significant structural changes that have up until now been considered taboo and objectionable to lawmakers who want to protect local campuses.

Maine clearly benefits from a thriving university system. In order for it to thrive and not break the bank, Maine residents, university community members and policymakers need to be honest about what they expect from it.