This week begins one of the worst deals offered by any British professional institution. Almost all universities are about to stop teaching students and subject them to pointless exams, mocks and quantification, before passing or failing them, then packing up and reassembling some months later in September. For an average price of tens of thousands of pounds a head (except in Scotland), most students will get virtually no teaching for a good proportion of their course. From any other service – medicine, law, accountancy – this would be regarded as a scam.

The tradition of scholars teaching academic subjects part-time while doubling as researchers is a relic of medieval monasticism. Oxbridge operates for just 24 weeks a year while many other universities operate two semesters. Staff and buildings may be otherwise employed, but students will sit idle, doing odd jobs or studying on their own. No one dares challenge this system. Whitehall inspectors never declare universities “failing” or “inadequate” as they do schools.

But I sense the worm is turning. Last year the percentage of British school leavers going to university fell for the first time – other than briefly in 2012, when the £9,000 fees came in in England. Even before lockdown and the years of online-only teaching, an Ipsos Mori poll showed a falling demand for university among school-leavers, with just 32% being “very likely” to go in 2018. The same trend is evident in the US where college enrolments have been falling for over a decade.

Meanwhile industrial and professional apprenticeships are rising fast. At Lloyds Bank last year, 17,000 school-leavers applied for 215 vacancies. The exam bluff was called by EY’s Maggie Stilwell, who said there was “no evidence” to conclude that exam success correlated with career success. Personal qualities and professional training were what mattered. Her firm, along with accountants PwC and Grant Thornton, have dropped any requirement of degree classes or even A-level results from their application forms. The new “degree apprenticeships” offered by firms such as Dyson and Rolls-Royce are popular, with some 30,000 offered last year. The Institute of Student Employers records that a declining half of firms now ask for a class of degree, and a quarter explicitly state “no minimum requirements”. In Silicon Valley it is even known that an acceptance letter from Stanford University can be sufficient to secure a job. Why waste years swotting for meaningless exams?

The age-old debate over whether a university is really an investment, personal or national, as opposed to a middle-class finishing school has never been resolved. British graduates on average earn £10,000 more than their non-graduate contemporaries, but surely some students might have done equally well with the same number of years’ work under their belts, perhaps studying a favourite subject part- or full-time later in life.

During his brief career as universities minister, Jo Johnson at least hinted at radicalism. He questioned the one-size-fits-all residential university. He floated shorter courses, shorter holidays, broader subjects, more intensive teaching and lifelong learning. He might have added that artificial intelligence is posing a whole new challenge. Johnson may now have gone, but the marketplace is talking. This most reactionary of British institutions may yet be forced to waken from the sleep of ages.

  • Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnnist