After a year of majority losses, Brexit difficulties and coughing fits, the Conservative government decided to begin the New Year with the controversial appointment of Toby Young as the University Watchdog. Toby Young, associate editor of The Spectator and regular contributor to the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, was appointed to the new board of Office for Students by the Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson. A series of offensive comments made on Twitter and other areas of his public life caused outrage at his appointment and on the morning of 9 January, Toby Young resigned.
I’ve followed this story very closely and it seems apparent that this is either yet more evidence of our government’s incompetence as of late, or is representative of a wider disrespect for students as a whole. Toby Young’s comments ranged from vulgar tweets about women to controversial jokes about starving children. The prospect that the government would find it appropriate to have a man like this in any public position is questionable, but the fact that they appointed him as a university regulator suggests a further disregard for students. This is a man who once referred to working-class students as “universally unattractive” in his contribution to the Oxford Myth in 1988. How could the government consider it appropriate to hire a man like this?
A string of offensive tweets is not the only reason that Toby Young’s appointment saw controversy, with many critics arguing that he was not qualified for the job. Toby Young confessed as much in his personal blog, posting on 3 January: “Most of the initial objections to my appointment focused on my lack of experience in the university sector, to which I plead guilty.” It should be noted despite a lack of experience in higher education, Toby Young has been an active supporter for free schools, having co-founded West London Free School, though this doesn’t make someone qualified to regulate university education.
This decision signifies something important in the method of the current Conservative government. After the 2017 election it was clear that for many young people, the Conservatives did not feel like a choice that reflected their interests. A survey of 52,615 voters carried out by YouGov revealed that less than 30% of 18-29 year olds voted for the Conservatives in the 2017 general election. With much of the youth becoming politically motivated, the Conservatives would be expected to make changes to appeal to young people, but this decision suggests they have no such intentions.
Toby Young has likely had his two minutes of public shaming by now, especially with his resignation from the role, but something should be taken away from this. It is unlikely the decision to appoint Toby Young was done with a deliberate intention of insulting students, though a failure to recognise that it would be received that way reveals great incompetence in our government. When interviewed on the subject, the Prime Minister has since stated: “When he was appointed I was not aware of these comments he had made.”
Theresa May, however, was not responsible for the hiring of Toby Young; that would be Jo Johnson, the former Minister for Universities and Science, who last year expressed his censure of no-platforming controversial speakers at universities. It is safe to say that this failed appointment of Toby Young has created serious problems within Theresa May’s government. The Conservatives may have responded with Toby Young’s swift resignation, Theresa May’s condemnation of Young’s tweets and the reallocation of Jo Johnson, but these considerations came too late. Before Young’s resignation, even, Boris Johnson took to Twitter claiming: “Ridiculous outcry over Toby Young. He will bring independence, rigour and caustic wit. Ideal man for the job.” “Caustic wit” is one way of describing Young’s tweets, of which over 40,000 were deleted in response to the outcry. The attempt to deal with a media crisis of their own making simply came too late; the damage has been done.
Much like many of the recent “questionable political actions by our government in 2017”,Toby Young’s appointment will likely slide into the archives of “questionable political actions by ourgovernment in 2018”. After this blunder, however, the Conservatives will face an uphill battle if they ever hope to win over student voters.