Toby Young has said he regrets making some “sophomoric and silly” comments in the past, but insisted he has the right credentials to serve on the board of the new university regulator.
The free school pioneer suggested some of his past remarks have been “deliberately misinterpreted” to an attempt to show him as “a caricature of a heartless Tory toff”.
In a blog post and Twitter messages, Mr Young argued that a lack of direct experience in the higher education sector does not disqualify him from serving on the board of the Office for Students, and that his work record, including encouraging disadvantaged teenagers to apply to top institutions, and co-founding four schools, makes him a suitable candidate.
The Department for Education (DfE) announced on Monday the names of the final six people, including Mr Young, to join the 15-strong board of the OfS, but opponents questioned whether Mr Young has the expertise and experience for the job.
Some on social media have also accused Mr Young of making crude and inappropriate remarks in social media posts in the past, including about women’s breasts.
The OfS’s remit will include issues like ensuring universities fulfil their duty to protect free speech on campus.
Mr Young said: “Given that defending free speech will be one of the OfS’s 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.
“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.
“For the record, I’m a supporter of women’s rights and LGBT rights.
“I’m also a defender of teaching children with disabilities in mainstream schools.”
Among those to criticise Mr Young’s appointment was Labour MP David Lammy.
Mr Young’s appointment has been backed by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Former education secretary Michael Gove, who spearheaded the free school programme under the coalition government, also offered his support.
In a tweet that referred to his Cabinet colleague’s backing of Mr Young, he said: “Quite right too – how many of Toby Young’s critics have worked night and day to provide great state schools for children of every background?”
In his post, Mr Young also addressed his credentials for the role, saying: “Most of the initial objections to my appointment focused on my lack of experience in the university sector, to which I plead guilty.
“I haven’t worked at a uni since I abandoned my PhD at Cambridge in 1990.
“I’d done a small amount of undergrad supervision for the previous two years to make ends meet.
“But that doesn’t disqualify me from serving on the OfS’s board.
“It’s customary for regulators to include some people with direct experience of working in the sectors 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.”
He added that he has been a “passionate advocate of widening participation since the mid-80s”, has co-founded four free schools, runs a charity that works with groups hoping to set up schools, has served as a Fulbright Commissioner since 2013 and supports work to help disadvantaged children gain scholarships to US universities.