Toby Young has apologised for making “sophomoric and silly” remarks as he defended his appointment to the board of English higher education’s new regulator.
Mr Young, a Spectator columnist and co-founder of the West London Free School, was named as one of the final six appointments to the board of the Office for Students on 1 January, prompting an outcry over his previous comments online and in print.
Nearly 20,000 people had signed a petition on change.org by 3 January calling for the “entirely unqualified” Mr Young to be “sacked immediately” from the role, claiming that he was appointed because of his public support in the press for Theresa May’s administration.
The petition claims that Mr Young once referred to children with learning difficulties as “illiterate troglodytes” and that he complained that schools having to give access to children in wheelchairs is an example of “ghastly” political correctness.
It also said that Mr Young referred to state school undergraduates at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge as “stains”, while several Twitter users have drawn attention to the former Sun columnist’s past comments about the size of women’s breasts.
Labour MP Roberta Blackman-Woods, the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group, tweeted on 3 January that she had written to universities minister Jo Johnson to request a full explanation about how Mr Young met the person specification for the OfS role, while Labour’s shadow equalities minister, Dawn Butler, has said that he should be sacked over his history of “misogyny and homophobia”.
In a lengthy Facebook post, Mr Young addresses criticisms of his appointment, stating that “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”. He also claims that his comments about state school pupils at Oxbridge and children with learning disabilities had been misinterpreted.
“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,” says Mr Young.
“For the record, I’m a supporter of women’s rights and LGBT rights,” he says, adding that he was also “a supporter of gay marriage, defended the policy in the Sun on Sunday and debated Nigel Farage on the topic in The Daily Telegraph”.
Mr Young also calls himself “a defender of teaching children with disabilities in mainstream schools”, adding that he has an older brother with learning disabilities and was a patron of the residential care home that he has 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’ board,” says Mr Young, stating that if “the OfS is to do its job properly, it should include people from both sides of the political divide, left and right”.
He admits that objections to his appointment over his lack of experience in the university sector were well-grounded, having “done a small amount of undergrad supervision” before abandoning his PhD at the University of Cambridge in 1990.
However, this did not disqualify him from serving on the OfS’ board, he says.
“It’s customary for regulators to include some people with direct experience of working in the sectors that 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,” Mr Young adds.
He qualified for the role, he says, as he was 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 per cent of the pupils at the secondary are on the pupil premium and we reserve 20 per cent 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,” he adds.
As the OfS has been tasked with making it easier for new providers to enter the higher education sector and secure university accreditation, he was “someone who has been at the coalface of setting up innovative new schools, I hope my experience of that bit of the public education sector will be relevant”, he added.
Mr Young also highlights the expected role of the OfS in upholding free speech on campus, including “defending the right of students, academic staff and visitors with unorthodox views to speak freely without being howled down by mobs of political extremists”.
“Given that defending free speech will be one of the OfS’ 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,” Mr Young says.