‘Greater diligence needed over OfS appointments’

10 Jan 18

The Department for Education has been urged to preserve the independence of the Office for Students following the resignation of Toby Young from its board.

Young resigned shortly after being appointed as a board member of the new universities regulator by the Department for Education, following intense criticism of controversial statements he made before becoming director of the New Schools Network.

Writing in the Spectator, Young apologised for saying things that were “ill-judged or just plain wrong”. 

Daniel Thornton, programme director at the Institute for Government, questioned Young’s appointment and said the DfE should have shown more diligence in making appointments.

“There is a risk in doing that that you end up with a longer process in public appointments,” he explained.

“But on the other hand, a quick Google of Toby Young would have shown that a lot of his comments were inappropriate.”

Thornton said that as a non-departmental public body, OfS was weaker than some other regulators.

He added: “That makes it all the more important that it’s seen to act independently from government, particularly as it has such delicate tasks to perform in ensuring universities’ autonomy and protecting free speech on campuses.

“It’s got these new powers which used to be in secondary legislation for registering and deregistering universities – the ‘teeth’ behind the process.

“They’ve got to have robust processes and be seen to be independent in exercising those powers.”

OfS chair Sir Michael Barber was forced to backtrack after his enthusiastic endorsement of Toby Young along with five other new board members.

Barber, who is founder of the Delivery Associates government advisory firm,  initially said he was “delighted” with the “outstanding set of appointments”.

But following Young’s resignation, Barber said: “He has reached the right conclusion.

“Mr Young has done good work founding a number of schools, as director of the New Schools Network, and to promote greater social mobility.

“However, many of his previous tweets and articles were offensive, and not in line with the values of the Office for Students.

“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.”

University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt said: “Nobody comes out of the Toby Young farce well.

“Of course it is right he has resigned, but he should never have been appointed in the first place.

“This whole sorry episode poses serious questions about the appointments to the board of the Office for Students.”

Young’s resignation did not appease National Education Union joint general secretary Mary Bousted, who questioned his fitness to continue at the NSN.

She said: “Toby Young has at last recognised what was so obvious to so many: he is not fit to hold a position in government, particularly given his views on ‘progressive eugenics’.

“Toby Young remains, however, director of the New Schools Network - a charity which has received millions of pounds of government funding. Now that knowledge of Young’s repugnant statements are public knowledge, questions must be raised about his continuing employment in this role.”

Young’s resignation, and the resignation of former education secretary Justine Greening in yesterday’s Cabinet reshuffle, has overshadowed the launch of the OfS.

The OfS became a legal entity on 1 January, and will become fully operational in April 2018.

It replaces the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access.

The other board appointments were DLA Piper chief executive Simon Levine,  Boots managing director Elizabeth Fagan, Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance chair Monisha Shah and Surrey University student Ruth Carlson.

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