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Smell the CofI: Protecting free speech in universities from Corbynistas, right-wing populists and those wanting to smash capitalism?

  • 20 March 2023
  • By Nick Hillman
  • In this blog, HEPI Director Nick Hillman takes a look at a book on the contentious issue of free speech inside universities.
  • Last week, Nick took part in a panel session at the Advance HE Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Conference in Hull, alongside one of the authors of the book.

During a recent chat on free speech in UK higher education, someone with years of experience in a senior role regulating universities told me to read Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter-terrorism by Alison Scott-Baumann and Simon Perfect.

So I have. It is a short book in the Routledge Focus series and, having now read it, I agree it deserves a wider readership – at the time of writing this piece, it had no reviews at all on Amazon despite being two years old (though it did have one five-star rating).

Smell the CofI

The book separates possible responses to the issue of free speech on campus in four:

  1. Libertarian
  2. Liberal
  3. Guarded liberal
  4. No-platforming

The authors back the ‘liberal’ approach, with the goal of ensuring universities develop a Community of Inquiry or CofI: ‘the CofI approach reminds us to find a human bond with others even when we think their ideas are stupid.’ (My emphasis)

They explain this in more detail by saying:

we are convinced by the strong case that societies gain more from open and critical debate about marginal, challenging or offensive views than from their exclusion – whether on the grounds that this is essential for establishing truth, for participating in democracy, or because the consequences of exclusion are worse.

In short, the goal is risk awareness rather than risk aversion. This is a useful framework, as the overarching objective becomes facilitating events rather than blocking anything that feels risky. It also means giving thought to the potential consequences of events before they happen rather than in a crisis at the time.

The approach cannot offer a panacea, however. Excessive focus on risk awareness may not address the chilling effect of bureaucracy on event organisers. Moreover, risk is an average and specific incidences of risk can be exaggerated: you may know events on the Middle East or the rights of trans people can raise tensions, but you do not always know which event will be the one that flares up.

Despite rightly seeing more debate as a way to pick a way through difficult terrain and recognising the central role universities have to play, the book also reflects the divisions that make this policy area so fraught and which tend to pit those in power against others.

Most notably, the authors regard the threats to free speech on campus as coming almost wholly from the right, with lots of discussion about ‘right-wing populism’. We are told, for example, that ‘for right-wing populists in particular, rhetorical appeals to freedom of speech go hand in hand with attacks on minority groups’. (Again, the emphasis is mine.)

If readers doubt the target is the right rather than all those who oppose liberty on both ends of the political spectrum, they should take a look at the book’s Index: under ‘p’, there is one reference to ‘left-wing’ populism but multiple references to ‘right-wing’ populism. The entry for ‘right-wing’ merely states ‘see populism’, implying the terms are synonymous.


There are two problems with this approach. First, from reading the book you would never know that Corbyn-mania, which was a form of left-wing populism that facilitated attacks on one minority group in particular – Jewish people – was concentrated among the middle-class young people who make up the mass of full-time undergraduates.

It is now widely accepted even by his own former party that the form of left-wing populism over which Corbyn presided allowed antisemitism to fester. Two-thirds of students and one-half of staff backed Labour when Corbyn was leader, but he does not get a single mention in the book. Antisemitism gets two.

The authors focus instead on the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), which is sometimes described as ‘neoconservative’ and wants to limit some extremist speech, and Spiked, which tends to be defined as ‘right-libertarian’ and supports more of a free-for-all, before repeatedly criticising ‘Right-wing populists [who] sneak into the gap between these [two] claims’ (see pages 32, 82 and 119).

So the right are portrayed as wrong if they want to limit more extremist speech, wrong if they push for a looser libertarian approach and wrong if they take a position in the space between these two positions. If you’re on the right and you have a view about free speech, it is deemed to be incorrect on sight, which seems unconducive to a reasonable conversation.

At this point, the careful architecture of the authors’ argument starts to crumble, not least because left-wing populists and others (eg the NUS) are in exactly the same ‘gap’, which is really a chasm. 

If you support No-Platforming while opposing Prevent, you are somewhere between wanting a clampdown and a free-for-all just as you are if you oppose No Platforming while supporting Prevent. The authors of the book themselves live in this gap too: they want vibrant, fair and open debate within some limits – ‘Liberal’ not ‘Libertarian’.

Students have typically resided in the same space, backing free speech in theory but offering less robust support when grilled further. In other words, those who want much stricter limits on free speech and those who want a libertarian approach stand out because their positions are untypical, not because most people agree with one or the other.

Smash Capitalism!

The second limitation with the authors’ approach is that, for well over a decade, we have had right-of-centre governments at Westminster. So condemning populism while associating it only with the side of the political spectrum that happens to be in power and ignoring the populist left makes the book appear resolutely anti-government.

That is the prerogative of the authors who are exercising their own freedom of speech. But their stated intention is to influence policy and the lack of balance makes that less likely. Whoever is in office will tend to be sucked in to any culture war that exists, yet this book’s partiality means the lessons are less likely to be digested by those currently in power.

If this sounds overcooked, the section in the book on student unions gives the game away. It recognises there are benefits from the recent tighter regulation of student unions (for example, on governance and financial management). It also marshals evidence to show the Charity Commission may have sometimes overstretched themselves when regulating student union events.

But the authors condemn the common idea that student unions should avoid political campaigning that is not focused on students. They envisage students backing a motion that devotes resources to protesting about a national economic policy and argue ‘we think their students’ union should have at least the possibility of enacting the motion if they so wish.’

This sounds more like finding an excuse to divert charitable funds from their proper use than protecting free speech. If a group of students want to campaign against a national economic policy, there are plenty of existing and legitimate routes for them to do so (including joining a political party) aside from (mis)using their fellow students’ charitable financial resources.

So the book is a useful addition to the canon on free speech in UK universities. Given the expertise of the authors, it may be of particular value to Prevent Leads in higher education institutions. But it needs to be read alongside other material that conveys a greater sense of the full range of attacks on free and fair debate on campus.

1 comment

  1. Thanks, Nick, for calling our book ‘brilliant’ in our excellent Advance HE panel with Smita Jamdar. We designed this as a workbook for the HE sector. It’s now modestly priced in paperback! Our work has been well received because it is practical and offers ways of having conversations and group discussions that are productive and useful for understanding complex topics. This means agreeing the parameters of civil yet critical engagement and, as Smita put it so beautifully, ‘going for the ball and not the player’. Our community of inquiry (COFI for short) operates between no platforming and a libertarian free for all, extremes which have become effective at shutting down debate. So, Nick, thank you for sharing your impressions.

    Regarding your criticisms – yes the primary focus of the discussion of populism is right-wing populism, and also there are some references to left-wing populism in the populism chapter (e.g. p33 – we note that the label ‘populist’ has been applied to Momentum; p34 discussion of Laclau and Mouffe who note populist tendencies underpinning all large-group movements not just those on right; p34 discussion of Podemos, left-wing populism; p43 we note that in some university campuses there is left-wing populism that may exclude multi-viewpoint debate e.g. on trans rights, Israel/Palestine, removal of statues etc).

    We are justified in focusing primarily on right-wing populism in the populism chapter because the focus is on what is framing the wider societal debate about universities. We argue that populism (of all kinds) tends to create a simplistic division of ‘us v them’, ‘people v elite’; and we argue that there is a clear tendency in recent political rhetoric (particularly among the government and other right-wing parties) to present universities as being part of an ‘elite’ that is betraying the ‘people’, either by failing to uphold freedom of speech or by allowing Islamist extremists to abuse it (cf p44). We don’t focus as much on left-wing populism because in our diagnosis such populism currently has less salience in the political and media spheres in the UK; and where such populism has been present (e.g. Corbynism), it hasn’t manifested in a way that serves to frame the university sector in a particular negative way (unlike right-wing populism). We think it is fair to ask – did left-wing populist impulses within the Labour Party under Corbyn work in any way to cast universities as betraying the ‘people’? Since the answer is no, we suggest that focusing on left-wing populism is less significant for discussing the framing of the sector than focusing on right-wing populism.

    We suggest that your review also seems to do some conflating regarding students, Corbynism and Antisemitism – you note the strength of support students gave to Corbyn, but then you move to imply (in our reading at least) that support for Corbyn among students means facilitating or turning a blind eye to Antisemitism – an over-generalisation that would need evidencing. It’s fair that we could have included more discussion of Antisemitism on campus (though our main focus was on Muslims and Islamophobia). We do cite evidence that was available at the time referring to censorship among Jewish students on campus, particularly in regard to discussing Israel / Palestine (p95, p76).

    You focus on a notion of ‘gap’ between pushes to curb speech (e.g. HJS) and libertarianism (e.g. Spiked), focusing on this sentence: ‘Right-wing populists [who] sneak into the gap between these [two] claims’. Then you write “So the right are said to be wrong if they want to limit more extremist speech, wrong if they push for a looser libertarian approach and wrong if they take a position in the space between the two positions.”
    – But actually, we only refer to right-wing populists sneaking into a ‘gap’ between these positions rhetorically – the notion of the ‘gap’ doesn’t feature conceptually in our framework. In fact the book’s position is that we support people who are in-between the two extreme positions, including right-wing figures (contrary to your interpretation).

    Regarding the point about students’ unions and whether they should be able to campaign on and devote resources to issues that affect everyone, not just ‘students as students’ – you fairly present the position set out in the book and you imply an important objection to it (if SUs are controlled by students representing a minority opinion within the student body, then SU resources could be devoted to activities with which that the majority would disagree). We suppose one response to this point is to suggest that if SUs are given the support they need to become places for facilitating participation in deliberative democracy (wherein the majority of the student body does become enthused by participation in SU life), then the risk of minority opinion controlling resources in a way the majority would disagree with is lessened. And if the rules on SU political campaigning / resource allocation were loosened, there would still need to be clear limits (we note for example that it would be fair that SUs should not be able to publicly endorse a particular political party, p99). Nonetheless you raise fair objections to this one, which could be resolved if SUs are given more support in formulating their approach to free speech issues.

    Since we wrote this book, I have begun to work with a team of brilliant young academics to bring together parliamentarians, academics, students and other experts including lawyers and medics. ( The team is Nina Arif, Sanjana Deen, Rana Osman, Hasan Pandor and Julia Stolyar).This process is vital for improvement of our collective understanding of democracy and knowing how to express ourselves effectively by working alongside those who run the country . This is what the free speech debate is really about:

    Professor Alison Scott-Baumann and Simon Perfect

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