2 January 2018

Higher education needs more people like Toby Young

By Anthony Seldon

New Year hangovers amongst left-inclining intellectuals and academics have been greatly exacerbated by news of the appointment of right-wing controversialist Toby Young to the board of the new Office for Students.

“Outrageous”, they are saying, that such a partisan figure should be appointed to such a crucial body, at such a sensitive time for higher education. What has made them even angrier is that Young has no track record of working in the university sector. “What on earth does he know?” they are shouting with contempt across social media. Few groups are more intolerant of diversity of opinion than the left-wingers who still dominate the sector.

For all that, they are right, aren’t they? Surely it would have been better to have appointed someone with direct experience of the very subject he is supposed to be regulating? Many of the same arguments were used against Amanda Spielman when she was appointed as the head of Ofsted last year. She hadn’t ever worked in schools, for goodness sake, her critics said. Yet she has turned out to have been a very good Chief Inspector so far. And I believe Young will do a similarly good job at the Office for Students.

His appointment is one that the new body badly needs. Universities have just had their worst year in living memory, in significant part because they are so inward looking. There has never been a greater need to have divergent views helping to shape the future of higher education in Britain. For far too long the sector has suffered from inbred thinking. University leaderships and their governing bodies need challenging, not soothing.

Besides, Young is hardly ignorant about education. He has been committed to social mobility since university and has been closely involved working with the Sutton Trust, via his work as a Fulbright Commissioner, which has done as much as anybody to explore and ameliorate Britain’s deplorable record of stagnant opportunities for the least advantaged. He’s invested considerable commitment to the disadvantaged by being co-founder of the West London Free School, which now has four schools. In October 2016, he was appointed director of the New Schools Network, which was established to support groups wanting to setup free schools. He will champion widening participation. He will speak for the consumer – the students – rather than the producer interest.

This will be valuable for the Office for Students when it comes to decide which new providers deserve accreditation. It is vital that only high quality institutions, offering a real education, should be afforded university status. The expertise that Young has acquired at the New School Network, sifting out the worthy from the second rate, will help focus minds on quality in higher education.

Do I detect the old arrogance here from universities looking down their noses at those involved with schools? Universities have far more to learn from schools – about teaching, learning and pastoral care of students – than many in higher education admit. Schools, of course, need to learn more from universities too. Young’s appointment will aid both.

Young will also help on free speech, where his track record as a leading public intellectual will provide a rare intellectual clarity. It is not only the Right who have suffered bans on campuses. Those on the Left too, including Peter Tatchell and Germaine Greer, have fallen foul of the thought police who set themselves up as the arbiters of who is allowed to speak at our universities. Higher Education in the United States has suffered greatly from the lack of coordinated commitment from across the sector to freedom of speech within the law. I find it degrading as a Vice-Chancellor that Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister, is telling fellow leaders that we have to stand up for free speech. That is precisely what we should have been proclaiming from the roof tops from the outset.

For 13 years under Labour, public bodies were peopled disproportionately with those from the centre and Left. It is a good thing that Toby Young, a committed Tory, should have been appointed to the board of the Office for Students. Less because he is a Tory than because what he will bring to the table will be heterodox, lively and spoken with strength and experience. The Higher Education sector will be better for it.

Sir Anthony Seldon is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham