Recently I have been receiving fragmentary news from harassed friends of huge redundancies at the university where I used to teach. But the university's newspapers gave no indication that such dramatic staff reductions were in train for financial reasons nor traced out their implications for the university's academic programme.
The January edition of the newsletter was full of the usual good cheer, with the vice-chancellor promising another "exciting year". So I turned to the university's website and hunted for news. Again, nothing. So, as far as the public face of the university is concerned, the public would not know that anything was amiss.
Should I have expected anything different? From one perspective, this deafening silence is quite in keeping with the idea of the university as a business in the knowledge industry, operating in a competitive market regime. University newspapers and websites can be expected to be merely marketing devices for the corporate projection of favourable self-images. To publish bad news about itself, or internal critical comment, would be like the university going into the market to shoot itself in the foot.
But from another perspective, it looks quite different. My old university is, after all, a university with a vision statement that commits it to openness, freedom of expression, social responsibility and respect for staff. But its openness seems to be severely compromised by its public silence.
While it cannot stifle freedom of expression, it can make it difficult to exercise by retaining tight control over its own media. What of its social responsibility? Important parts of its website are already misleading to prospective students. And, of course, respecting staff does not extend to allowing them to publish their reactions or opinions in its newspapers - even if they were rash enough to try. It therefore looks as though the high ideals of the vision statement can be easily over-ridden by considerations of "commercial sensitivity".
Here's the rub: how realistic is it to suppose that universities can be autonomous institutions when they also regard themselves as businesses? The primary "business" of universities is higher education (rather than just teaching) and research. An essential feature of both is the fostering of the spirit of questioning and criticism - especially of otherwise unnoticed dominant orthodoxies - and the capacity to examine important issues from different perspectives.
This applies particularly to universities themselves. We have heard a lot recently calling into question the independence and integrity of some commercially sponsored university research. But a university in an affluent country does not deserve the name if it refuses to support its own critical self-examination openly and is frightened to facilitate the questioning, by its own staff, of the wider regime under which it operates lest this be commercially (or politically) damaging.
A self-confident university, committed to a genuinely educational vision of itself, should sponsor and actively encourage these things as part of sustaining its own educational and cultural life.
My old university's reluctance to do this betrays not just worries about the commercial consequences, but political fearfulness. I assume that holds for many other universities, too.
So perhaps the moral of this tale is that political regimes under the influence of neo-liberalism do not need secret police to contain serious dissent: they can do it much more efficiently, effectively and unobtrusively through "market discipline".
In this way, the critical function of universities is tamed. And it all seems so natural.