Now they’re businesses that live or die based on the number of bums they can get on lecture hall seats - and yet they still seem to be lost in the past and unable to forge away into the future.
Young Kiwis are also opting not to go to university; jobs are readily available.
They don't want to run up a huge student debt. Some of them see a university degree as irrelevant - by the time they've got the degree, the learning will be out of date.
And so AUT, Victoria and Otago universities have announced staff layoffs at each of their campuses - more than 200 at each of the universities. And the Government is poised to announce a rescue package for the tertiary education sector. I wonder if that is just good money after bad?
Are universities what they used to be as a young person growing up?
It was aspirational to think of going to university. I did my journalism degree. It was only one year at the Polytech, but I always in the back of my mind, wanted a degree. I didn't feel fully educated until I had one.
I wonder if universities hold the same cachet today for young learners.
There was much talk from Helen Clark of the Knowledge Economy. More New Zealanders, more young New Zealanders, becoming more educated.
But again, I wonder if the universities have delivered?
If one in three students fails to finish their degree, who are they delivering to?
Clearly, young people decide university is not for them and they are left with the student loan that still has to be paid off and nothing to show for it. Universities themselves can't seem to attract enough people to fund themselves.
So what is the taxpayer getting out of it? Do we have to rethink the whole university model, instead of coming up with rescue packages that are just going to prop up a system that seems to be failing.
Kerre McIvor, is a journalist, radio presenter, author and columnist. Currently hosts the Kerre Woodham mornings show on Newstalk ZB