Toby Young quits Office for Students board after MPs' debate

Controversial journalist resigns from English higher education's new regulator after his appointment was condemned in House of Commons

January 9, 2018
Toby Young
Source: Shutterstock
An inquiry into Toby Young's appointment to the Office for Students is now underway

Toby Young has resigned from the board of the Office for Students after his appointment was heavily criticised in a fiery parliamentary debate.

In a Spectator blog published on 9 January, the controversial writer said he had decided to stand down from his role at the new university regulator because he had “become a distraction from its vital work of broadening access to higher education and defending academic freedom.”

“Education is my passion and I want now to be able to get on with the work I have been doing to promote and support the free schools movement,” wrote Mr Young.

The former Sun columnist, who has been condemned for what he defended as “sophomoric and silly” remarks, claimed that “the caricature drawn of me in the last seven days, particularly on social media, has been unrecognisable to anyone who knows me”.

“Some of the things I said before I got involved in education, when I was a journalistic provocateur, were either ill-judged or just plain wrong – and I unreservedly apologise,” he said.

Sir Michael Barber, the chair of the OfS, said that Mr Young had "reached the right conclusion".

"Many of his previous tweets and articles were offensive, and not in line with the values of the Office for Students," Sir Michael said. "Mr Young was right to offer an unreserved apology for these comments and he was correct to say that his continuation in the role would have distracted from our important work."

Mr Young's resignation comes after Theresa May defended the appointment on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, with Mr Young thanking the prime minister for “standing by me, and drawing a distinction between my earlier life and my subsequent record in education.”

Mr Young was also defended robustly by Jo Johnson, the universities minister, in a heated debate in the House of Commons on 8 January, in which the writer’s appointment was attacked by MPs from all parties.  Mr Johnson claimed Mr Young had been on “something of a developmental journey” since he became involved in free schools and that Labour MPs were “feigning outrage” over the “foolish and repellent” comments, including remarks “going back as far as the 1980s”.

Dawn Butler, Labour’s shadow equalities minister, who tabled an emergency question about Mr Young’s position on the OfS, said she was “flabbergasted that the minister can stand up and support the appointment”, claiming it “leaves the OfS’ credibility in tatters”.

Ms Butler said she was particularly appalled that Mr Young had boasted just 13 months ago of once sending a stripper to the workplace of a male colleague on what happened to be "Bring Your Daughter to Work Day". As Mr Young was a close friend of Jo Johnson’s brother, the foreign secretary Boris Johnson, Ms Butler said she was aware the writer was “one of his mates”, she said.

Labour MP Lucy Powell described Mr Young’s appointment as an “example of chumocracy” and Mr Johnson had made a “gross misjudgement in trying to defend him”, while the Scottish National Party's Alan Brown said Mr Young should be sacked for tweets made in 2009 when he joked about “masturbating to Comic Relief images from Africa”. Several other MPs also referred to the offensive tweet regarding starving children filmed in Kenya.

Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the education select committee, also urged Mr Johnson to sack Mr Young over what he called his “incredibly dark and dangerous” remarks about people with disabilities, working-class students and “progressive eugenics”.

Mr Johnson said that MPs “should not caricature him in crude terms as the members [sitting] opposite do”. Mr Young should be “judged on his deeds, rather than his words”, said Mr Johnson, saying he had done “much more to support education than his armchair critics”.

Mr Johnson returned to this theme in a tweet  after Mr Young's resignation was announced, stating that Mr Young's "decision to stand down from the OfS board and repeat unreserved apologies for inappropriate past remarks reflects his character better than the one-sided caricature from his armchair critics".

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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