It isn’t so much that the concept of the university is a bad idea. It’s just that what the university has become in the United States has departed from anything which might be recognized as a university in past times.
Most parents see universities today as places that prepare their children for ‘careers’ which in previous times might have been called vocations. The actual methods by which masters taught apprenticeships vocations have been largely made illegal or otherwise out-competed by various subsidies from federal and state governments. University education and vocational education have been conflated for at least the past century, even before the laws that made it more challenging to enforce apprenticeship contracts, dating back to the 1930s.
Professors are ill-equipped to provide vocational training because of the way that markets function. Markets are eternally calibrating to real-world conditions. If the market participants do not continue calibrating their operations to the conditions of the real world, they are pushed out of the market by stronger hands. Professors, especially when they are insulated from competition, have little incentive to match what they teach to the conditions of reality.
Universities were, traditionally, places mostly for the preservation of tradition, and the inculcation of historical teaching to students. They were not primarily seen as job-prep institutions. They were necessarily small-scale institutions, because one-to-one and one-to-few tutelage was the core purpose.
Many states, with the US being an exceptionally passionate example, have attempted to transform the university into moral-formation institutions, and later into high-grade-job-prep institutions. The US in particular has failed to achieve its goals in transforming universities into effective training centers for job-prep. The tradition-inculcation-goal was abandoned throughout the West in 1968, so the current versions of the universities can’t be criticized for failing to reach that goal.
So, in the US, how could you make universities irrelevant, whereas today they’re seen as guarantors of middle class jobbery?
Financially, they’re close to unassailable — colleges with state support have enormous resources that they can use to crush any competitor. While it matters that they crush the lives of many of the people who fall for their sales pitches, in the short term, it doesn’t matter, because the primary customers are not the same people who undergo the experience. The students of 1968 are paying for the education of the classes of 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016 — they may have witnessed the apocalypse, but they have not seen its aftermath, except perhaps from a Tom Wolfe novel.
The answer is not to aim for the class of 1968 — which the current university-administrators do perfectly, and must do, to fulfill their fiduciary duties — but to the class of 2048. You have to think very hard about what the children of the next generation are going to have to deal with, and ignore all the controversies of the present, because they’re not going to be relevant to the people alive in the future. Most of the issues of today will be irrelevant in a few decades, because most of the pressing public issues of today concern people who will be dead in a few decades.
The current version of the university can be made irrelevant only by focusing on what those people in 2048, who haven’t been born yet, will need.