The Appointment of Toby Young, Put Simply

By Campaign Agent Megan Field

Self proclaimed “journalist provocateur” Toby Young has announced his resignation from the Board of the Office for Students (the OfS), just 24 hours after the Universities minister, Jo Johnson, defended his appointment in the House of Commons. After a week of widespread controversy, Young believes his appointment has become a distraction from the “vital work” of the new University Regulator. The question to be asked now is why did his appointment cause such outrage?

The OfS, which will replace the HEFCE as the main regulator of higher education, has been put in place as part of the Higher Education and Research Act (2017); it aims to promote choice and consider the interests of students, employers and taxpayers. As a regulative body, it will be able to make recommendations but, crucially, it lacks extensive direct powers. In light of recent events, the body will also seek to hold universities to account on issues such as free speech on campus and chancellor’s pay. Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister, is optimistic, stating “I am confident that the OfS has a board that will champion choice and competition, and put the interests of students at the heart of regulation.” Unfortunately, the general public could not be convinced.

Critics claimed Toby Young was unsuitable for the role given views he expressed in the past concerning women, people with disabilities, and LGBT rights - to name a few. These “politically incorrect” remarks, as Young called them, included labelling working class students as “stains” on elite universities such as Oxford, and a statement which appears to despair at the fact that “schools have got to be “inclusive” these days.” Views such as these are controversial at the best of times, even more so when expressed by an individual who was tasked with promoting tolerance and equality.  There were also concerns that Young lacked suitable experience for the role, after the Department of Education embellished claims that the journalist had worked at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. Despite all this, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was amongst those who defended Young, praising his 'caustic wit', and calling him the 'ideal man' for the role.

Whilst many have taken to social media to express their disgust, over 200,000 people signed a petition calling for Young to be removed from this post. Moreover, senior Labour figures Dawn Butler and Angela Rayner protested against the “the virulence of Mr Young’s misogyny”, which they believe is made even more startling by the fact that he had not, at the time, offered any apology. Instead, he stated it would be “a shame if people who have said controversial things in the past, or who hold heterodox opinions, are prohibited from serving on public bodies”.

Given the scale of the opposition Young faced it was unlikely that he would be able to change people’s minds. Nonetheless, in a defensive blog for The Spectator he justified his appointment on three grounds, for example, he cited his work with the New Schools Network as evidence that he was committed to promoting social mobility by opening high quality schools in areas of educational under performance. Furthermore, in an attempt to neutralise his opposition, he tweeted that it was ironic that people were reprimanding him for things he said in the past when free speech would be a centrepiece of the OfS work. To this end, he made every effort to distance himself from past comments, deleting a total of 40,000 tweets, yet fears remained that someone capable of articulating such opinions in the first place held values completely at odds with the task in hand. 

Unfortunately for Theresa May, who cleared Mr Young to remain in his job at the OfS, this has coincided with a shambolic cabinet reshuffle and is undoubtedly a source of profound embarrassment. Nevertheless, many will be pleased with the announcement; with the challenges facing young people on the rise, whether this be mental health problems or spiralling student debt, they need someone who is going to take these issues seriously, not dismiss them as a “moral panic”

Sources and Further Reading:

Image: Hammersmith & Fulham Council @Flickr 

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