"It is becoming harder and harder to see what the unique selling points of the university are," a scholar has argued.
David Turner, emeritus professor of education at the University of Glamorgan, claims in a new paper that universities have been rendered largely redundant in a secular democracy.
Private companies have taken on the role of stimulating entrepreneurship, journalists have become the "critics of society", and private research laboratories have taken over the job of advancing the cutting edge of technology, he explains.
"Private training organisations claim to be better at instilling the skills needed to function in the workplace, and private consultants vie for lucrative contracts to manage examinations and personality profiling...One does not need to follow this line of thought too far to wonder whether there is anything that is best done within a university."
The paper, "A Secular Democracy Does Not Need Universities", was presented at the annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education last month. Professor Turner suggests that universities have done themselves no favours when, "in response to the call from the politicians who are now [their] paymasters, they have framed their teaching in terms of skill development and learning outcomes".
"When governments have asked for more applied research producing greater impact, they have been only too willing to follow the money," he continues.
"Universities have not been stuck in their traditions. If anything, they have been too willing to respond to the needs of society."
This made it essential to come up with "a convincing answer to the question of what universities are for, and what they do for society", since politicians "seem to be of a mind to pay for what they think they are getting, and they think that is not very much".
In developing a response, Professor Turner suggests that academics need to challenge the assumptions made by government.
"Where are these people who do not benefit from higher education? Where are these people who have never used the services of a graduate professional?" he asks.
Society functions, he argues, not only because graduates have tangible skills but also because they have developed something far more important: confidence and curiosity.
Although higher education "is not the entire and sole answer" to society's problems, "it is part of the answer to how individuals are able to take their own personal circumstances, sometimes tragic and moving circumstances, and make sense out of them for themselves", Professor Turner argues.
This is a case that now must be made forcefully, he adds, warning: "If we are not very careful, we will get the universities that we deserve."