Jo Johnson – 2018 Speech on Toby Young

Below is the text of the speech made by Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, on 8 January 2018.

The Office for Students came into being on 1 January and will be operational from April. It will put quality of teaching, student choice and value for money at the heart of what it does. It will be helped in that regard by a remarkably broad and strong board bringing together a wide range of talents and backgrounds, including vice-chancellors, graduate employers and legal and regulatory experts, as well as a student representative mandated by statute. The board also brings a diversity of views: its excellent chair, Sir Michael Barber, was a senior adviser to a former Labour Prime Minister; and several of its members have declared themselves to be past or present members of the Labour party. This is clearly not a body of Conservative stooges, but one that draws on talent wherever it can be found.

The Opposition have called this debate to discuss one of the board’s 15 members, Toby Young. They would have us believe that he is not qualified or suitable to be on the board. Yes, Mr Young is not a university insider, but a board made up only of university insiders would be hard pressed to provide the scrutiny and challenge to the sector that students and taxpayers deserve. Indeed, the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 requires the Secretary of State to have regard to the desirability of the board’s members having, between them, far wider experience, including experience of promoting choice for consumers and encouraging competition. Mr Young has real experience of both as the founder of the West London Free School, and now as director of the New Schools Network, helping parents around the country to set up schools of their own. That experience will be important to a new regulator that will be charged with creating a level playing field for high-quality new providers to offer degrees alongside established universities.

At the West London Free School, which Mr Young set up, 38.5% of children receive the pupil premium, and they have done better than the national average for those on the pupil premium this year and last. A parent-governor at the school described him this week as being

“committed to public education, academic excellence, and greater opportunities for kids from lower incomes”.

He has won praise for supporting diversity by making the school a safe and supportive place for LGBT+ students. He is also an eloquent advocate of free speech, a value that is intrinsic to successful universities and which the OFS has undertaken to uphold. He has served with credit on the board of the US-UK Fulbright Commission, where he has been a strong supporter of the commission’s work with the Sutton Trust to help disadvantaged young people to attend US universities. Indeed, the chair of the Fulbright Commission, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, described Mr Young as an effective, committed and energetic commissioner, saying that he had seen no evidence that any of Mr Young’s remarks had influenced him in despatching his duties as a commissioner.​

The hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) has called today’s debate to discuss tweets and remarks, some of which go back to the 1980s. These were foolish and wrong, and do not reflect the values of the Government, but I am not aware that anything Toby Young has said in the past has been found to have breached our strong discrimination laws, which are among the toughest in the world. In future, of course, he will be bound to comply with the Equality Act 2010 when performing all his functions for the Office for Students. Regardless of the legal position, it is of course right that Mr Young has apologised unreservedly to the OFS board. It is also right that he has said that he regrets the comments and given an undertaking that the kind of remarks he made in the past will not be repeated. So be in no doubt that if he or any board member were to make these kinds of inappropriate comments in the future, they would be dismissed.

As the Prime Minister said yesterday, since these comments and tweets, Mr Young has been doing “exceedingly good work” in our education system, and it is for that reason that he is well placed to make a valuable contribution to the work of the board of the Office for Students, where he will continue to do much more to support the disadvantaged than so many of his armchair critics.