Toby Young says he regrets 'sophomoric and silly' remarks after backlash over university watchdog appointment

Hatty Collier
Toby Young has been chosen to sit on regulator the Office for Students: PA

Toby Young has said he regrets "sophomoric and silly" comments he made in the past after he faced a backlash when he was appointed to sit on a new university regulator.

Critics have lambasted the Government for the appointment after unearthing a stream of social media posts by Mr Young, including “leering” comments about women’s breasts and crude jokes.

He started his duties this week as one of 15 members on the board of the new Office for Students.

The free school pioneer said he regrets making “politically incorrect” comments but suggested that some of his past remarks have been "deliberately misinterpreted" in an attempt to show him as "a caricature of a heartless Tory toff".

He also insisted her has the right credentials and experience for the job.

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.

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."

Toby Young: writer who is no stranger to controversy

While watching Comic Relief in 2009 he commented: “What happened to Winkleman’s breasts Put on some weight girlie.” A few hours later he wrote: “Alan Carr has bigger breasts than Claudia Winkelman” (sic)

While watching Prime Minister’s Questions in 2011 he wrote: “That’s quite a cleavage behind EdM.”

In 2012 during PMQs he tweeted: “Serious cleavage behind Ed Miliband’s head. Anyone know who it belongs to? #pmqs”

He followed it up with “Breaking: Cleavage belongs to @pamela_nash #pmqs”, referring to former Airdrie and Shotts MP Pamela Nash.

In 2013 he responded to criticism of his previous comments by saying: “Women who display a lot of cleavage shouldn’t then complain when men notice them.”

In 2004 he wrote an article about posing as a lesbian for the night and embarking on a “whistlestop tour of New York’s hottest lesbian clubs” with the aim of drawing lesbians into his confidence to “make out with them on the dancefloor”.

In a Spectator column in 2012 he called on the Government to repeal the Equalities Act, saying: “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 Münchausen syndrome by proxy.”

He went on to say: “If Gove is serious about wanting to bring back O-levels, the Government will have to repeal the Equalities 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.”

He has since said that he was using the word “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”.

In 2015 he wrote in support of embryo screening to weed out children deemed less likely to have high IQs. In the Australian periodical Quadrant he wrote about technology that could allow parents to select the potentially most intelligent embryo in vitro: “My proposal is this: once this technology becomes available, why not offer it free of charge to parents on low incomes with below-average IQs? … it could help to address the problem of flat-lining inter-generational social mobility and serve as a counterweight to the tendency for the meritocratic elite to become a hereditary elite.”

Among those to criticise Mr Young's appointment was Labour MP David Lammy, who tweeted: "Weeks after sexual harassment scandals break across Westminster the Govt somehow deem it appropriate to appoint an avowed and proudly sexist misogynist to public office. Wholly unqualified, on the record making hugely offensive remarks about disabled and working class students."

He also tweeted: "If a school teacher, university tutor or anyone working in education made any of the unacceptable remarks that @toadmeister has made they would most likely be sacked. As HE Minister in last Lab Govt I am deeply disappointed by this decision and will be asking Qs in Parliament."

Mr Young's appointment has been backed by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who earlier tweeted: "Ridiculous outcry over Toby Young. He will bring independence, rigour and caustic wit. Ideal man for job."

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.