by Phil Pilkington
In March 2023 Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), wrote a review of Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter-terrorism by Alison Scott-Baumann and Simon Perfect (both SOAS), covering freedom of speech, populism (of the left and right), ‘no platforming’, and students. I disagree with his argument and his conclusions.
Nick Hillman’s review may appear a slight text, but it demands a response as it sheds light on a particular and influential perspective on higher education. The comments on freedom of speech interest me as someone who over many years had to ensure events with guest speakers either did or did not take place, running to hundreds of events. Hillman notes correctly on risk assessment: ‘you do not always know which event which will be the one that flares up’. One event I approved did not go well: the experience of a student’s conversion from Sikh to Islam caused a furore, not on campus, but throughout the region and nationally, ignited by formidable Sikh activists. Nick Hillman perhaps has limited experience of the consequences of such events, which can include death threats, social media storms, massive impact on ethnic minority groups on campus and their alienation from the culture of the university. ‘Flaring up’ is a delicate euphemism. Many opinions in the review are misleading because they are ahistorical and expressed without the benefit of material, practical experience.
The book identifies four possible responses to the issue of free speech on campus: libertarian; liberal; guarded liberal; and no-platforming. Hillman says the authors back the ‘liberal’ approach and “the authors regard the threats to free speech on campus as coming almost wholly from the right”. He argues however that there are threats from the left, exemplified by Jeremy Corbyn’s period as leader of the Labour Party and its association with anti-semitism. The authors argue that right-wing populists “sneak into the gap” between neo-conservative and right-libertarian, an argument Hillman criticises because: “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.”
Hillman’s suggestion is that to have a ‘no platform’ position while opposing the PREVENT strategy is to occupy an equally inconsistent liberal ‘gap’. But there is no inconsistency: the matter is much more subtle, complex and dangerous. There is a case for both positions on practical and historical grounds. Historically, a ‘no platform’ position was taken up in the 1970s by many students’ unions against the rise of the far right (the National Front and later the British National Party) which had gained some questionable success in marches in the East End of London and some success in local election results into the 1980s. Students’ unions are often conflated with the National Union of Students (UK), but many students’ unions did not have ‘no platform’ policies and a few were not affiliated to NUS, which is a confederation of students’ unions, guilds and associations.
A university or polytechnic campus was a focal point for the far right, not to gain support from the students or staff in debate but as a ‘piece of theatre’ for their supporters, who would have been suspicious of higher education. This situationist political action had the lineaments of populism, more recently shown in the occupation, and videoing for social media, of campus buildings by National Action, an organisation which celebrated the murder of Jo Cox MP and is now proscribed by the Home Office. No platform policies were subtitled ‘for Racists and Fascists’. Nick Hillman may have had in mind more celebrated and extremely rare cases of ‘cancel’ culture, but these should not be confused with ‘no platform’ policies nor the actions taken by students against the rise of racist political groups and parties. This stand was important in itself and influential in later legislation for protected characteristics in the Equalities Act. The other purpose of the policy was of course to ensure support and harmonious relations on campus when ethnic minorities were threatened.
No Platform policies were arrived at by debate, with motions democratically passed by the student body. PREVENT in contrast is a statutory duty of universities, instructed by the Secretary of Education under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 to have a PREVENT policy and strategy which should “balance freedom of speech with the assessing of risk of external speakers”. Unlike No Platform policies it was not debated by the student body. Responsibilities under the Act rested with university trustees/governors, but as a member of staff at a students’ union I was allocated some responsibility for ensuring duties were met and I liaised with anti-terrorism police officers on the adoption of the policy. My experience confirmed the findings of Greer and Bell that the liaison was almost entirely taken up with intelligence of far right and multinational far right groups active in the area who could target the ethnic minority community and students. Political objections by some students’ unions (and NUS) to PREVENT were based on the perception that it was Islamophobic. Attacks on Muslim students on campus at that time, both verbal and physical, reinforced their perception that PREVENT discriminated against them. There was no causal connection between the Act itself and the attacks, but the ‘hostile environment’ was a reality: I established a Hate Crime Reporting Centre within a students’ union to support Muslim students (amongst others).
For many the practical objections to PREVENT were insuperable. The monitoring required to trigger concern for ‘indicators of being drawn into terrorism’ was impossible: for example, that lecturers and other staff should note changes in behaviour, declining academic performance, etc. What might have been possible in a school classroom setting could not apply to a cohort of hundreds of students on a computer science course, for example. Staff training was advised, so that they might notice changes in behaviour likely to be related to susceptibility to terrorist activities. This might have focussed on academic staff and personal tutors, but in our mass HE system I prioritised training for staff working in halls of residence to notice changes in behaviour; it was nevertheless unlikely to be effective.
Overall, to suggest a ‘liberal gap’ between no platforming and opposition to PREVENT fails to recognise the details and the historical roots and practices of the two. It was and is more complex than that.
The review then goes on to address failures in understanding right and left populism and the related threats to free speech. There are some difficulties with this application of populism. I have suggested that the historical origin of no platforming was a reaction to the rise of a violent far right in the UK using a campus and its students as part of a situationist spectacle, against an (educated) elite rather than for support. These historical origins open up a wider discussion. Speech is more than opinion and our right to hold or possess it. Freedom of speech has some conditions of origin and direction, otherwise it would be simply incomprehensible noise. The theatre of speech has attributes beyond facts, truth conditions, empirical evidence, or whatever other enlightenment features may be included in ‘debate’. Debates are rare – most external speakers give a presentation, answer a few questions and then leave. These linguistic details are rarely considered in the discussions about free speech. The focus is on the handful of cases involving ‘cancelling’ or postponement, among the tens of thousands of events each year. Why is this a priority for HE, given the problems facing the sector? Why has it become such a priority? Who has driven this as an issue? Has it been tangled up with a populist view of HE in the UK?
Using the criteria developed by Michael Cox (LSE) for an understanding of populism, it can be argued the UK government is not so much right of centre, as Nick Hillman suggests, but is a government becoming right-wing populist. How is that possible and how could it be related to interests in free speech and universities? Cox’s criteria for right wing populism match many government policies and rhetoric in the UK. Populism of the right is nativist, declaring allegiance to those living ‘somewhere’ (with no social or actual mobility in deindustrialised regions) against the socially and literally mobile who live ‘nowhere’ (graduates, the metropolitans). It distrusts elites, has a disdain for intellectuals, promotes a conspiracy theory of the establishment as traitors, is sceptical about science, and seeks to ensure cultural elites (eg Arts Council, BBC, museums, university governance et al) are ‘loyal’. Some of Cox’s criteria may not be met, but recent developments in the Illegal Immigration Bill, following Theresa May’s Home Office policies of creating a ‘hostile environment’ and the Windrush generation deportations, contribute to a perception of the current government as right-wing populist.
Cox argues that left wing populism is rare, given that the basic condition of populism is nativistic (or ethnically based) whereas the left will focus on class divisions across ethnicity and be internationalist. However, Hillman identifies Corbyn, the former leader of the Labour Party, and ‘Corbyn-mania’ as left populism because of the antisemitism attached to his time as leader. The apparent implication, since half of university staff and two-thirds of students supported the Labour Party at the time of Corbyn’s leadership, is that many in universities also supported a form of left populism. This leaves hanging the thought that perhaps they presented dangers as a form of populism to the university spirit, essence or whatever it is about freedom of thought and speech. Hillman says the ‘gap’ between free speech and clamping down or cancelling becomes ‘a chasm’. But that depends on who is deciding what happens in that gap. The free speech imbroglio – if it is that – flows from some deliberate choices. We should ask not how it happened – it began as a counter to racists and fascists attempting to threaten campus unity and vulnerable individuals – but how it became such an obsessive issue for some. An issue which crowds out the academy precariat, the loss of research collaboration with Europe, the financial instabilities of HEIs, the enormous foreign investment in halls of residences, the rise of AI to challenge the curriculum and assessments, graduate indebtedness, et al.
Hillman’s review then turns to students’ unions, suggesting that stricter controls have been introduced; his meaning is not clear unless he means the incorporation and charitable status formalised by the Charities Act of 2006. That Act made students’ unions accountable to a board of student trustees, with charitable status no longer depending on the ‘parent institution’. The recruitment of external lay trustees by student officers allowed for greater expertise on financial, commercial and employment matters but overall control and campaigning policy remained in the hands of elected student officers via student councils, referenda and general meetings according to their constitutions. Ironically, this is the strongest form of democratic control on a UK university campus, notwithstanding trade union activities, in terms of size and scope of activities. Hillman went on to say: “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.”
The misuse of funds by students’ unions has long been a trope. It was certainly around in the 1970s and early 80s over alleged support for the IRA or hunger strikers. Probably the biggest financial scandals within students’ unions were the seeming misuse of funds to support rock bands – or to put it another way, to provide grants and arts subsidies to future global rock stars such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer. This was considered to be ultra vires by the then Attorney General in 1973, at a time when there was no legal identity for students’ unions. Unions subsequently separated commercial operations from charitable core activities.
The case against students’ unions campaigning on ‘non-student issues’ because it would be a misuse of students’ resources is simplistic on two grounds. Firstly, there is the question in a universal HE system of what is and is not a student issue. NUS research showed that over 80% of students were concerned or very concerned about climate change – an NUS led survey won a UN award for environmental understanding in the tertiary sector. So is global warming a student issue? Tick. What about the growth of foodbanks? Students have been accessing them through agreements between students’ unions and the Trussell Trust. A tick for the cost-of-living crisis. Inflation and government fiscal policy are connected, so what are the limits? Childcare costs and the mature students’ society? Disabled students and the benefits test? And so on. A student body is a global body. There is interconnectedness and there is empathy. Who is to decide if ‘x’ is a worthy subject for a students’ union to campaign about? The student body decides on policy collectively. As a charity the students’ union has a legal personality; to make a collective decision is to form a corporate opinion.
Secondly, charities have been deeply concerned with their gagging by the Lobbying Act of 2015. This goes much further than students’ unions and their alleged profligacy in ‘irrelevant’ campaigning. The Act states that charities (including students’ unions) may have political activities in accordance with the aims and objectives of the charity, but not party politically. When there is a close correlation between a charity’s position and that of a political party manifesto (which is usually a position opposing the ruling party) then there is considered to be a contravention of charitable status. The objection to the Act’s powers over charities is not limited to students’ unions, it has been an objection voiced by many large and respected charities such as Amnesty UK, Friends of the Earth, Shelter, et al. Is the condemnation of supposedly ‘irrelevant’ campaigning another aspect of right-wing populism?
Assumptions about parallels between left and right wing populism are highly questionable, and practical knowledge and experience of campus issues around freedom of speech and counter-terrorism points in a very different direction to the one encouraged by topical but superficial political narratives, such as those represented in Nick Hillman’s review.
Phil Pilkington’s former roles include Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, and CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union. He is an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE. He chaired the SRHE Student Experience Network for several years and helped to organise events including the hugely successful 1995 SRHE annual conference on The Student Experience; its associated book of ‘Precedings’ was edited by Suzanne Hazelgrove for SRHE/Open University Press.
 Note: ‘students’ unions’, not as in the review ‘student unions’