Toby Young OfS appointment epitomises how the privileged seldom fail

The appointment of Young to the OfS board is upsetting but unsurprising, says Lisa Mckenzie

January 3, 2018
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I’ve got the new year working-class blues. 

This new year, those January blues became a bit more depressing thanks to the announcement that Toby Young has been appointed to sit on the board of the new universities regulator, the Office for Students.

There is a lot that can be said about Toby Young. It is easy to laugh and to sneer at him, as most academics do, because of his right-wing politics (at odds with most of the views in our universities) and his need to provide uncritical thoughts and commentary on any social issues that might help him to get his generic, mediocre, white, middle-class male face on the telly. Specifically, there’s his championing of the free school movement in the UK, which has wasted taxpayers’ money on an education system that has not worked.

But some of us are not laughing. I am not laughing.

Toby Young has an elite, middle-class political pedigree. His father was the late sociologist Michael Young, a man I have some very grudging admiration for. He wrote witty and intelligent prose about the absolute failure of social mobility in his book The Rise of the Meritocracy, and as a left-wing social entrepreneur he understood that higher education was an important social good. His research contributed to the abolition of grammar schools and the opening of comprehensive schools. He worked with the Labour government on establishing an Open University during the 1960s.

He founded the Mutual Aid Centre, wrote the 1945 Labour manifesto, and researched and wrote about working-class life in East London in 1958 – work that is still read by sociology students today.

He also accepted a life peerage (becoming Lord Young of Dartington) and phoned up the University of Oxford, recommending his own son as a student. All this gilt-edged left-wing privilege was then passed on to his children and class reproduction continues. The rise and the rise of Toby Young into a position of relative power in relation to the key determinant of social mobility – education – is unsurprising. It is, in fact, a Weberian ideal type. 

A difficult time for the working-class voice

I have written previously for Times Higher Education about the lack of working-class voices in public life, in the arts, media, politics and academia. And, sadly, there is still much to write.

Last month, the Royal Court theatre (which once championed and supported working-class voices) opted to silence the voice of Andrea Dunbar, who wrote the play Rita, Sue and Bob Too – a difficult but honest narrative about working-class life on a council estate in Bradford during the 1970s. The Royal Court, it seems, felt that the play’s association with a director who has since been accused of sexual harassment, combined with its content – which includes schoolgirls having sex with an older, married man – had too much “working-class reality” for a West London theatre audience.

Thankfully, on this occasion, the Royal Court changed its mind after a barrage of outrage and an outpouring of affection for this lonely, working-class woman’s voice. 

Meanwhile, also in December, Elisabeth Murdoch (daughter of Rupert Murdoch, and steeped in privilege that originated on the Right, rather than on the Left) joined Arts Council England’s governing board. Sir Nicholas Serota, chair of the ACE committee, said: “It is so important that boards address diversity in the process of recruiting new members. I am particularly pleased to welcome not only our youngest member to date, but also a National Council that has an equal number of men and women. This is work in progress.”

Progress indeed. However, as I write in January 2018, I fear that our experiences as working-class women are still more likely to be in keeping with those of Rita and Sue 40-odd years ago than with Elisabeth Murdoch today.

Nobody called up Oxford for me (or for millions of other working-class people). The ending of my formal education was a careers interview in an unused and unusable classroom at my comprehensive school in 1984, against the backdrop of the miners’ strike. An uninterested adviser asked me which factory I would like to work in. And I was lucky. 

Working-class people today do not have a choice of which low-paid, zero-hours work they do. They will be signing up to an agency, and will wait each day for a text informing them whether they are required. 

So excuse me if I am seething with anger about what this appointment of Toby Young really means. The children of the middle class – whether left or right in their political persuasions – are seldom allowed to fail. And universities reinforce this: they ensure that class inequality remains and that the mediocre children with class privilege are able to have positions in the arts, the media, politics and in academia handed down to them. 

Lisa Mckenzie is research fellow in the department of sociology at the London School of Economics.

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