Doubts cast on DfE claims of Toby Young's qualifications for watchdog job

Kevin Rawlinson and Sara Luxmoore
Toby Young’s appointment to the board of the Office for Students has been criticised by Labour as a ‘huge missed opportunity’. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Fresh questions have been raised over the suitability of Toby Young to sit on the board of the new universities regulator after it emerged that the government exaggerated his qualifications.

Young acknowledged on Tuesday that the Department for Education’s (DfE) claim that he had held teaching posts at two of the world’s most illustrious institutions, Harvard and Cambridge, were not accurate.

“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,” he told the Guardian.

Defending Young’s appointment to the newly set-up Office for Students (OfS) on Monday, the department told the Guardian that his “diverse experience includes posts” at the institutions.

In a separate statement, it said he was a “teaching fellow” at Harvard and a “teaching assistant” at Cambridge. Young was a student at those institutions when he carried out the work.

It was also claimed that Young had been appointed ahead of people who appeared better qualified for the role – including the former chief prosecutor for north-west England, Nazir Afzal.

Afzal said he was the pro-chancellor of one university and the governor of another, as well as holding a series of other relevant qualifications, but he did not get an interview. “Clearly, I wasn’t what they were looking for! He was,” Afzal posted on Twitter.

The Cambridge classicist Prof Mary Beard said that for the DfE to portray Young’s role as an academic post “does not help the debate”, though she stressed that she was criticising neither the composition of the OfS board nor graduates who carry out supervision duties.

Her former colleague Prof Tim Crane said Young had “no significant experience in universities since those few years in the 1980s, and the DfE should not pretend that he has”.

Crane, now a professor of philosophy at the Central European University in Budapest, also sought only to criticise the DfE’s characterisation of Young’s background. He told the Guardian: “I don’t think Young is necessarily unqualified for this position. Bodies like this typically contain people from many professional backgrounds.”

Young agreed, saying: “It’s customary for the boards of 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.”

In an interview with the editor of the Spectator, for which he also writes, Young cited his work with students at schools that do not regularly send students to Oxbridge, as well as his positions as a Fulbright commissioner and the head of the New Schools Network, a government-funded charity that promotes free schools.

The DfE has also faced severe criticism over the appointment from those who say Young wrote in support of employing eugenics to weed out children deemed less likely to have high IQs.

Young said that criticism was a “little misleading”, saying the article, written for the Australian periodical Quadrant in 2015, discussed technological advancement in the area and argued that any future developments should be made available on national health services, rather than only making them available to the rich.

Others said Young had also attacked the use of wheelchair ramps in schools, as well as other measures to improve inclusivity, in a 2012 Spectator article.

“Schools have got to be ‘inclusive’ these days,” he wrote. “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 Münchausen syndrome by proxy.”

Young said on Tuesday that he was “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 schools for people with disabilities. “I’ve absolutely nothing against inclusion in that sense.”

Others highlighted various comments Young has made on Twitter about women’s bodies, suggesting they render him unsuitable for public office.

On Tuesday, he said he regretted the “sophomoric, politically incorrect remarks” he made on Twitter. “I hope people will judge me on my actions.”

Labour’s shadow higher education minister, Gordon Marsden, was one of those criticising Young’s appointment as a “huge missed opportunity” to make sure the OfS reflected the “diversity of the sector it must regulate”. He said the announcement had been “sneaked out over the new year” in an effort to avoid proper scrutiny.

The Department for Education did not respond to requests for comment.