For the last couple of days, there’s been a good deal of controversy surrounding my appointment to the Office for Students.
It began when the Guardian published a story at 0.01 on 1st January 2018 headlined: ‘Toby Young to help lead government’s new universities regulator’.
That was slightly misleading in that I’ll only be helping to lead the OfS in the sense that I’ll be one of 15 members of the board. Not the Chair, not the CEO. But lots of sleuths on Twitter thought they detected at attempt by the Government to ‘bury bad news’ by releasing the story of the final six appointments to the OfS board a minute after midnight on New Year’s Eve.
In fact, the announcement was embargoed until then because the OfS didn’t come into legal force until midnight on New Year’s Eve. The headline on the release was: ‘Office for Students comes into force’.
But once people on Twitter got it into their heads that the Government was trying to slip the news past them that I was going to be ‘helping to lead’ the new universities regulator, they decided they jolly well weren’t going to take that lying down. Five minutes after midnight, I was trending.
Most of the initial objections to my appointment focused on my lack of experience in the university sector, to which I plead guilty. I haven’t worked at a uni since I abandoned my PhD at Cambridge in 1990. I’d done a small amount of undergrad supervision for the previous two years to make ends meet.
But that doesn’t disqualify me from serving on the OfS’s board. It’s customary for regulators to include some people with direct experience of working in the sectors they regulate and some people with other kinds of experience and the OfS is no different. If it just consisted of university professors the sector could be accused of marking its own homework.
I think I qualify for the role in three respects.
First, the OfS has taken on the responsibilities of the Office for Fair Access and I’ve been a passionate advocate of widening participation since the mid-80s when, as a state school boy at Oxford, I first started visiting sixth forms in deprived parts of the country to try to persuade students to apply to high-tariff universities.
Since then I’ve co-founded four free schools – more than 33% of the pupils at the secondary are on the pupil premium and we reserve 20% of the places at the primaries for the same – and I now run a charity, New Schools Network, which works with high-quality providers hoping to set up good new schools in areas of educational under-performance.
I’ve also served as a Fulbright Commissioner since 2013 and support the work the Commission does with the Sutton Trust helping kids from disadvantaged backgrounds secure scholarships to study at American universities.
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Some people have dredged up a news report from 2015 about an essay I wrote in 1987 in which I talked about ‘Stains’ at Oxford, with the reporter wrongly claiming ‘Stains’ is a euphemism for grammar school boys. It isn’t. Indeed, it would have been odd for me to write something disparaging grammar school boys at Oxford since that’s what I was myself.
Second, the OfS has been tasked with making it easier for new providers to enter the higher education sector and secure university accreditation. As someone who has been at the coal-face of setting up innovative new schools, I hope my experience of that bit of the public education sector will be relevant.
Third, the OfS will have some responsibility for making sure universities uphold free speech on their campuses. That means defending the right of students, academic staff and visitors with unorthodox views to speak freely without being howled down by mobs of political extremists.
I’ve been a defender of free speech since reading JS Mill’s On Liberty aged 16. As Mill says, ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’
Given that defending free speech will be one of the OfS’s priorities, there’s a certain irony in people saying I’m ‘unfit’ to serve on its board because of politically incorrect things I’ve said in the past.
Some of those things have been sophomoric and silly – and I regret those – but some have been deliberately misinterpreted to try and paint me as a caricature of a heartless Tory toff. For the record, I’m a supporter of women’s rights and LGBT rights. Indeed, I was a supporter of gay marriage, defended the policy in the Sun on Sunday and debated Nigel Farage on the topic in the Daily Telegraph.
I’m also a defender of teaching children with disabilities in mainstream schools. I have an older brother with learning disabilities and I’m a patron of the residential care home he’s lived in for 20 years.
But I am a Tory, obviously, and for some people that alone is enough to disqualify me from serving on the OfS’s board. That’s plainly nonsense. If the OfS is to do its job properly it should include people from both sides of the political divide, left and right.
More generally, I think 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. I’m a middle-aged white male so don’t tick any of the standard diversity boxes. But if public bodies are to make good decisions, they need to be intellectually diverse, as well as diverse in other respects.
For that reason, I very much hope the reception my appointment has received doesn’t put off other right-of-centre mavericks from applying for similar positions.
Finally, a heartfelt thanks to all those people who’ve come to my defence in the last couple of days. I’ve always tried to stick up for people when they’re experiencing two minutes of hate, partly because I think, ‘There, but for the grace of God…’
So thank you Boris Johnson, Kemi Badenoch, Michael Gove, Priti Patel, Sir Anthony Seldon, Jenni Russell, Fraser Nelson, Merryn Somerset Web, Nick Boles, Laura McInerney, Phillip Blond, Maria Caulfield, Jesse Norman, James Kirkup, Sarah Vine, Guido Fawkes, Mary Curnock Cook, Iain Martin, Claire Lehman, Piers Morgan, Stephen Daisley, Mark Lehain, James Croft, Rob Colville, Simon Dudley, Jonathan Simons, Adrian Hilton, Adam Perkins, Dennis Sewell, Adrian Wooldridge, Ryan Bourne, Nick Timothy and all the rest. It means more to me than I can say.
Let me assure the people that work in England’s universities that I have enormous respect for everything you do. It’s because of your hard-work and professionalism that our universities are among the best in the world. I hope to do whatever I can, in however small a way, to help you maintain that status.