On Jan. 1, England’s new Office for Students launched with the mandate to ensure students get value for their money.
That same day, the university regulator set off a social media storm by appointing a controversial board member, and then seemingly inflating his credentials.
The Department for Education said board member Toby Young, a Tory who is a journalist and free school founder, previously held teaching posts at two of the world’s most prestigious universities, Harvard and Cambridge.
Unfortunately, Young was only doing his postgraduate duties.
“I taught undergrads at Harvard and Cambridge and was paid to do so but these weren’t academic ‘posts’ and I’ve never made that claim,” Young told the Guardian. The education department responded saying his “diverse experience includes posts” at the institutions, but has since altered the announcement to reflect that he was a teaching fellow at Harvard and a teaching assistant at Cambridge. Young followed up on Facebook to say that this should not disqualify him as boards are strengthened by diverse backgrounds. “If it just consisted of university professors the sector could be accused of marking its own homework.”
Young is the co-founder of four free schools (the UK’s version of charter schools) and runs the New Schools Network, a government-funded charity to promote free schools in England. He would be one of 15 members of the Office for Students’ board.
The controversy over Young’s appointment has exploded beyond his inflated teaching credentials. Unions and Labour members of parliament have criticized past comments he made about inclusivity, as well as tweets they dubbed misogynistic and homophobic. Young has apologized for the tweets, clarifying his meaning on inclusivity, and highlighting the fact that he has started four free schools where a third of kids are eligible for the pupil premium, given to poorer students.
The Office for Students was created to be a market regulator for universities, keeping an eye on critical issues such as vice chancellors’ pay, grade inflation, freedom of speech on campus, and whether universities are delivering the value for money they promise (universities were free in the UK until 2012, when they started charging £9,000 a year; the average student now has £50,000 in debt after graduation).
The office was born from the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act, which passed into law last year after two-and-a-half years of debate, through multiple governments and elections, as well as opposition.
Young’s columns for the right-wing Spectator have been highlighted in the debate over his appointment. In a 2012 column he wrote:
“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 called on the government to “repeal the Equality Act because any exam that isn’t “accessible” to a functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six will be judged to be ‘elitist’ and therefore forbidden by Harman’s Law.”
According to the BBC, he later clarified his comments by saying that “I’m using ‘inclusive’ in the broad sense to mean a dumbed down, one-size-fits-all curriculum, rather than the narrow sense of providing equal access to mainstream education for people with disabilities.”
He also noted that he had not used the word “troglodyte” as a synonym for children with special educational needs.
The Independent, a left-wing publication, highlighted some misogynistic comments Young allegedly made on Twitter, and since deleted, on the size of women’s breasts and how hot women at the Emmys were.
On Tuesday, Young said he was a defender of women’s rights and regretted the “sophomoric” comments.
Boris Johnson, the UK’s bombastic and also-politically incorrect foreign minister supported Young’s appointment.
Boris Johnson’s brother, Jo Johnson, is the minister for higher education, and has been an advocate for the creation of the new organization.