Former universities minister Jo Johnson contacted Toby Young about applying for the board of English higher education’s new regulator, says a report that details the high level of political interference in its appointments process.
In a report by Peter Riddell, the commissioner for public appointments, published on 28 February, the watchdog found there was a “clear disparity” in the treatment of different candidates and parts of the process “had serious shortcomings in terms of the fairness and transparency aspects” under the code governing public appointments.
The commissioner also found that Justine Greening, who was education secretary at the time, queried the proposed choice of Mr Young to the Office for Students board, but was sent a letter by Department for Education officials detailing his “record on education reform”.
The letter, however, did not refer to any due diligence checks on Mr Young’s social media activity. The Spectator columnist later apologised for his “sophomoric and silly” remarks, but resigned a week into the job after more than 220,000 people signed a petition for his removal over his previous controversial statements.
In his report, Mr Riddell explains that “Mr Johnson asked officials to inform Mr Young about the advert for the campaign” to recruit OfS board members. After Mr Young was deemed appointable following what the panel described as a “very good interview”, his social media history was not checked, the report says.
However, while the Department for Education claimed it would have been “neither proportionate nor normal to trawl through potentially large mounds of past social media activity” for Mr Young, these checks were carried out for those applying for the board seat reserved for a student experience representative.
Thanks to the effort of what email records mention as “No 10 Googlers”, the “social media history of one candidate was brought to the attention of the minister", says Mr Riddell.
“Notably no such exploration or research was made on other possible appointees, including Mr Young,” he adds.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College union, said Mr Young’s appointment “looked like nepotism at the time and this damning report confirms that the minister encouraged him to apply”.
“Although not checking Young’s chequered past, efforts were made to find evidence to bar a student representative from a position on the board,” added Ms Hunt.
The report adds that the decision on whether or not to appoint one candidate in particular was “heavily influenced, not by the panel, but by special advisers, notably from 10 Downing Street.”
One candidate for the student experience role who was suggested by Jo Johnson, and found appointable by the panel, was “rejected on the basis of public statements and student union activity”, in particular in relation to critical comments about the government’s anti-extremism Prevent agenda.
“Submissions and email records show that there had been a desire among ministers and special advisers not to appoint someone with close links to student unions,” says the report, which adds that “this was not made clear in the advertised candidate information”.
“Political factors completely unrelated to the remit of the OfS were cited by the special adviser in objecting to the preferred candidate,” says the report, which adds that the board’s “independence is put at risk by taking too partisan an approach to candidates’ views.”
Ministers later concluded that “none of the [student] candidates were right for the role” and appointed their own choice, Ruth Carlson, a University of Surrey engineering student, on an interim basis.
However, the announcement of Ms Carlson’s appointment on 1 January “did not make clear” that she was an interim member, says the report, which adds that the explanation that a “fuller announcement” would make the position clear later in the week was “inadequate and unconvincing.”