A lack of direct experience in the higher education sector does not disqualify Toby Young from serving on the board of the new university regulator, the free school pioneer and writer has said.
He insisted he is right for the Office for Students role, arguing that his work record – including encouraging disadvantaged teenagers to apply to top institutions, and co-founding four schools – makes him qualified.
In a blog post on Facebook, Mr Young, whose appointment has been criticised, also suggested it would be a “shame” if people who have made controversial comments, or hold non-conformist opinions, were banned from serving on public bodies.
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 and highlighted comments made by him in the past.
In his post, Mr Young said: “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.
Mr Young also noted that the OfS will have some responsibility for ensuring universities protect free speech on campus, which he said he has been a defender of since the age of 16.
“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.
“I have an older brother with learning disabilities and I’m a patron of the residential care home he’s lived in for 20 years.
“But I am a Tory, obviously, and for some people that alone is enough to disqualify me from serving on the OfS’s board.
“That’s plainly nonsense.
“If the OfS is to do its job properly it should include people from both sides of the political divide, left and right.
“More generally, I think it would be a shame if people who have said controversial things in the past, or who hold heterodox opinions, are prohibited from serving on public bodies.
“I’m a middle-aged white male so don’t tick any of the standard diversity boxes.
“But if public bodies are to make good decisions, they need to be intellectually diverse, as well as diverse in other respects.
“Let me assure the people that work in England’s universities that I have enormous respect for everything you do.
“It’s because of your hard work and professionalism that our universities are among the best in the world.
“I hope to do whatever I can, in however small a way, to help you maintain that status.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson condemned criticism of Mr Young’s appointment, tweeting: “Ridiculous outcry over Toby Young. He will bring independence, rigour and caustic wit. Ideal man for job.”