Writer and free-schools advocate Toby Young’s appointment to a new university watchdog has riled Labour MPs and a trade union, with critics pointing to his lack of experience and inflammatory comments about students.
The Department for Education has announced Young, who founded the West London Free School in 2011 and has been an enthusiast for Conservative education reforms, will sit on the board of the Office for Students (OfS).
The regulator will help head the government’s drive to apply market forces to higher education in England, and its remit includes overseeing contentious issues including university vice chancellors’ pay and enforcing ‘free speech’ on campus.
But Young’s involvement in the biggest overhaul in how universities have been regulated in 100 years has sparked outrage, with the University and College Union accusing the Government of “sneaking out” news of the appointment of a “Tory cheerleader” on New Year’s Day.
Young, whose late father Michael founded the Open University and is credited with coining the term “meritocracy”, described working-class grammar school boys who secured places at Oxford as “universally unattractive” and “small, vaguely deformed undergraduates” when writing about class in a 1988 book, The Oxford Myth.
Young recounted how the arrival of “stains” – as working-class students were known – had changed the university.
“It was as if all the meritocratic fantasies of every 1960s educationalist had come true and all Harold Wilson’s children had been let in at the gate,” he wrote.
Labour MP David Lammy said on social media on Monday: “Is that Toby Young who said I was wrong to criticise Oxbridge for failing to improve access?
“The Toby Young who only got into Oxford University because his Dad rang the tutor up?
“Toby Young who slated working class students? I thought it was New Year’s Day not April Fool’s Day.”
Nazir Afzal, a former chief prosecutor of the Crown Prosecution Service,
honorary lecturer in law at the University of Manchester, and pro-chancellor at Brunel University, claimed he applied for a position on the board but didn’t get an interview.
In a column for the Spectator in 2012, Young complained about the “ghastly inclusivity” of wheelchair ramps in schools.
He wrote: “Inclusive. It’s one of those ghastly, politically correct words that has survived the demise of New Labour. Schools have got to be ‘inclusive’ these days.
“That means wheelchair ramps, the complete works of Alice Walker in the school library (though no Mark Twain) and a Special Educational Needs Department that can cope with everything from Dyslexia to Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.”
He told the Mirror he commenting on the “dumbing down of the national curriculum” under the last Labour government, and was not advocating educating children with disabilities outside mainstream schools.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “If this organisation was to have any credibility it needed a robust board looking out for students’ interests.
“Instead we have this announcement sneaked out at new year with Tory cheerleader Toby Young dressed up as the voice of teachers and no actual representation from staff or students.”
After economist and lecturer Danny Blanchflower criticised the appointment, Spectator editor Fraser Nelson came to the defence of Young by way of a jab at Blanchflower’s economic predictions. It was re-tweeted by Young.
The OfS came into legal existence on Monday. Young will serve alongside with Ruth Carlson, a civil engineering student at Surrey University and Elizabeth Fagan, the senior vice president and managing director of Boots.
Education Secretary Justine Greening said the OfS will be tasked with ensuring the “world class reputation” of the UK’s universities is maintained.