The ice mountain is cracking. The glaciers are loosening. The greatest cultural confidence trick since the medieval monastery is dissolving. Last week the universities minister, Jo Johnson, said the unsayable: the British three-year university course, virtually unchanged in 100 years, is absurd and should end. That many foreign universities are equally conservative is neither here nor there.

To Johnson, the overwhelming majority of courses can be done in two years. The internet has transformed — or should have transformed — both teaching methods and student research. The astronomical cost of a course — averaging some £60,000 (Dh293,459) — is no more defensible than the outrageous vice-chancellors’ salaries, the inflexibility of teaching time, and curbs on free speech .

Universities have long resisted attempts at reform by cosseting the children of the establishment in a sort of upmarket finishing school with a vaguely virtuous aura. A hospital makes people well. An army keeps people safe. A court dispenses justice. Some university courses give students a usable skill — in medicine, engineering, chemistry, the law. But most, especially in humanities departments, despise such specifics. With a wave of the hand they declare “education” a good in itself.

Many years ago, I attended a celebrated debate at London’s Institute of Education between two top educational economists, John Vaizey and Mark Blaug. The topic was whether a university was a national investment or a vehicle for personal consumption.

Vaizey argued for investment, but supplied no plausible rate of return other than platitudes, and the fact that graduates earn more money. Blaug contended that a university facilitated middle-class consumption, merely granting access to better jobs, a strictly personal “rate of return”. Many bright American school-leavers now secure acceptance to a top university, then treat it as a ticket of immediate admission to Silicon Valley, cutting out the need for money-wasting college — so-called “costly signalling”.

At the same event, I recall an East Asian economist pointing out that spurts in economic growth in Germany and East Asia had preceded, not followed, mass higher education. He predicted that when a new generation of Japanese executives sent their children to university, Japanese growth would subsequently decline. Few of them would work like their parents. They would seek nonproductive jobs in administration or consultancy. He was spot on.

Britain’s wiping out of polytechnics in the 1990s and the subsequent suppression of 16-plus technical education was a disaster, the result of a long-term cultural disconnect between the Whitehall elite and British industry. It left industry bereft of trained skills and work ethic, and reliant on foreign migrants. As the educationist Alison Wolf has said , we have more graduates than ever, yet “low growth, falling or flat productivity, stagnant wages” and around one-third of graduates “doing non-graduate jobs”. There may be other factors at work, but it hardly “proves” that mass higher education is a sound investment.

For universities, the inevitable result has been a frantic conflict with Whitehall over value for money. Cambridge University’s Stefan Collini, in Speaking of Universities, rages against the resulting targetry and robotic quantification in teaching and research. Academics spend hours measuring each other, totting up research “outputs” and “impacts” and bidding furiously for ever more students, confused over whether to prioritise teaching or research.

When 50 years ago universities catered for less than 10 per cent of the age cohort, none of this mattered. Universities really could be run like monastic institutions, taking time off for sowing, harvest and hunting. Teaching occupied barely half of each year. Yet it still does. And a recent report found that some humanities students interact with teachers for just 26 hours in three years.

Modern British universities are not ivory towers but a major estate of the realm. Their looming premises sprawl across provincial town and city centres. Privatised student residences, empty half the year, are the new “social” housing, with half their rents met, in effect, by the state in un-repayable loans. In other words, students have replaced the poor as an urban housing priority. Surely such institutions must justify their call on public money.

If any aspect of university finance has lost credibility it is student loans. Most graduates of my generation fully repaid our higher education through surtax at 40 per cent, 60 per cent, even 80 per cent. This was progressive and it was fair. Instead, Labour’s promise to pay the £50,000 tuition fee shifts money from poorer taxpayers to the richest 40 per cent of graduates who are now predicted to repay their loans. An income tax coding based on years in higher education would be far fairer.

Universities might howl that they would lose discretionary fee income, and be sent back to the days of the University Grants Committee. But they were far more autonomous then. Anything must be preferable to today’s open-ended claim on the taxpayer, which merely leads to ever more government interference.

Universities may be demoralised, but they are in a classic statist bind, rich but enslaved. It is shocking to walk around a modern campus and compare it with a wretchedly cramped hospital next door. Jo Johnson must surely do something, not just pontificate. He must cap numbers and pay universities for tuition and maintenance, in most cases for just two years. Most universities could then pay their lecturers properly, to teach full-time.

Collini is right to champion education as “inculcating the spirit of the humanities”. But why is this a function peculiar to universities? They are by their nature exclusive, intolerant of free speech, with 77 per cent of academics reportedly on the political left . They are entitled to claim that is their privilege, but it hardly makes them a uniquely civilising force.

That force remains vital, but I see it being delivered more by open universities, adult education, museums, music, theatre, publishing and the BBC. These, not universities, are today’s custodians of open inquiry, participation and debate. They are the outreaching engines of modern culture, most deserving of public support.

Royal commissions have gone out of fashion, banished by the raucous polarisation of political debate. Yet it was a royal commission, from Lionel Robbins in 1963, which created the mass university. If ever there was need for another such commission, it is now.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Simon Jenkins is a journalist and author. He has edited the Times and the London Evening Standard. His recent books include England’s Hundred Best Views, and Mission Accomplished? The Crisis of International Intervention.