Free speech, Universities and the Office for Students

At a conference in Birmingham on Boxing Day, the Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson (Boris’s little brother) gave a speech about free speech. It was reported by the Guardian and the BBC amongst others, and the full text is here.

Our universities … should be places that open minds not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged and prejudices exposed.

But in universities in America and increasingly in the United Kingdom, there are countervailing forces of censorship, where groups have sought to stifle those who do not agree with them in every way under the banner of “safe spaces” or “no-platforming”.

However well-intentioned, the proliferation of such safe spaces, the rise of no-platforming, the removal of ‘offensive’ books from libraries and the drawing up of ever more extensive lists of banned “trigger” words are undermining the principle of free speech in our universities.

The reason for the apparently curious timing may be that a new regulating body, the Office for Students, is now in existence, and will take over from HEFCE in April.

As part of our reforms to higher education, we have set up a new regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), which, as its name suggests, will regulate the university sector in a way that puts the interests of students first.

Created by the Higher Education & Research Act 2017, the OfS will come into being next week.

Promoting freedom of speech within the law will be at the heart of its approach to the regulation of our higher education system.

The OfS will go further than its predecessor in promoting freedom of speech.

In the Act, we extended the existing statutory duty on universities to secure free speech in the Education (No.2) Act 1986 so that it will apply to all providers of higher education registered with the OfS.

Furthermore, as a condition of registration with the new regulator, we are proposing that all universities benefitting from public money must demonstrate a clear commitment to free speech in their governance documents.

And the OfS will in turn use its regulatory powers to hold them to account for ensuring that lawful freedom of speech is upheld by their staff and students.

The BBC and Guardian articles linked above mention that the new body will be able to fine universities if they fail to uphold these values.

But what relevance does all this have for us here? Well, speaking on the Today Programme on Radio 4, Johnson talked about the OfS and freedom of speech, but went further, linking free speech to scientific progress, as reported in the Telegraph:

Universities will be less able to make scientific breakthroughs if they do not tackle ‘safe space’ culture, minister warns

“I think it’s important that students going through our higher education system do learn to be resilient and deal with controversial opinions, to deal with views that challenge their most profoundly held beliefs or views that simply make them uncomfortable. Because if we fail to do that we will soon be on a slippery slope that ends up with a society that is less able to make scientific breakthroughs, less able to be innovative and frankly less able also to resist injustice. We need people to be able to deal with the uncomfortable.”

Clearly this has relevance to the climate debate, where controversial opinions are marginalized and attacked.


You can read more about the OfS from the official announcement, or click the image at the top of this post to read an article at Varsity. It has 15 board members and will be chaired by Sir Michael Barber, who had an education role in Tony Blair’s government. The CEO is Nicola Dandridge, formerly the head of Universities UK, who provoked some controversy in 2013 by defending gender segregation at some university events. Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid over her appointment, but the twittersphere went into meltdown over the appointment of someone called Toby Young to the board.

Who is Toby Young? Apparently he’s a journalist and involved with setting up Free Schools.  It seems that his offences include speaking out against the bandwagon of political correctness, expressing in public his appreciation of female figures, and being right-wing.

As the hysteria mounted, Toby Young’s website crashed under the strain, leading to bogus claims that he had deleted a post, and many other untrue statements.   Guido comments on the outrage, saying that Young “is entirely unqualified apart from having worked at Harvard and Cambridge, being a visiting fellow of the University of Buckingham, a Fulbright Commissioner, co-founder of four free schools and director of the New Schools Network.”

The Guardian has written at least four articles about Toby Young’s appointment. The last one has been summarised by @supportourlefty

You can read Young’s responses to the “confected outrage” here, here and here.

There is, inevitably, a petition calling for him to be fired, which I think is delightfully ironic in view of Johnson’s speech about censorship and free speech.

Update 9 Jan

Toby Young has now resigned from his post, just one day after being defended in Parliament by Jo Johnson.

Jo Johnson has been reshuffled, to Minister of State at the Department for Transport and Minister for London. He will be replaced as Minister for Universities by Sam Gyimah.

 

66 thoughts on “Free speech, Universities and the Office for Students

  1. The phrase “Far-Right Fascism” is an oxymoron, as Fascism once started in the Italian Labour Party. It’s a genuine Far-Left ideology, based on Socialism, just like Communism and National Socialism (often incorrectly refered as ‘Nazism’, intentionally to hide the real origin), both founded by Bolsheviks. (A pig with lipstick, is still a pig …)

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  2. University faculty or staff would be fired if they say the things that Toby Young has said, repeatedly, insistently.

    As a department head, I would fail in my duty of care if I would let him talk, without a chaperone, to my students.

    Toby Young can therefore not function.

    I expect that, on April 1 when he becomes subject to the Higher Education Code of Conduct, complaints will be made and the Office for Students will have to immediately suspend him while being investigated for gross misconduct.

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  3. It’s all very well fining universities if they offend or fail to act to defend free speech, but what of student unions who commonly are the chief offenders, especially in no-platforming cases? The unions, purposely are fully independent of the universities that house them. Will universities be penalised for the activities of their student unions?

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  4. I am all for free speech in universities and would normally oppose any no platforming. Yet I think back to my undergraduate days at Queen Mary in East London. Whilst there I participated in a fabulously exciting union debate that concerned banning the fascist Oswald Mosley to speak within the University. Mosley intended to deliberately march through the streets of what is now Tower Hamlets (in which Queen Mary sits), through streets still inhabited by Jews who had violently clashed with the fascists pre-war. I was immensely proud of my fellow undergraduates for curtailing Mosley’s freedom to spread his hate.

    But who is to judge when no-platforming is the right course of action?

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  5. Reading Young’s quotes at
    https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/jan/03/toby-young-quotes-on-breasts-eugenics-and-working-class-people
    it seems Richard Tol is quite right in his comment above.

    It’s not a question of free speech. Young is free to make any vulgar adolescent jokes he likes on his Twitter account. But he obviously shouldn’t be appointed to a job like that, or any job involving contact with human beings. If he hollered that stuff on a building site he could be arrested.

    Oddly, his ghastly eugenics comment, also quoted, gets his father’s theory about Meritocracy (Michael Young: the Rise of the Meritocracy) 180° wrong. Meritocracy, according to his father, has dangerous unforeseen consequences.

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  6. Richard Tol, as enlightened and open as he is, shows that even he has been not escaped being stunted by the forces tearing down the Academy and damaging students and our collective future.

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  7. @hunter
    My boss should be held to the same, or higher standards than I am. So should my boss’ boss’ boss’ boss. So, either Toby Young is unsuitable for this job, or I should be free to comment on my students’ boobs, mock my gay students, attack the toffs, and ridicule the wheelchair-bound.

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  8. Joanna Williams at Spiked:

    “Outraged Twittermobs demanding apologies for thoughtcrimes and social media pile-ons are now a routine part of life. But, even by today’s norms, the furious reaction to Young’s appointment has been hysterical and embarrassing. Labelling him a eugenicist and a fascist doesn’t only display a spectacular historical illiteracy – it also ignores what Young has been up to for the past few years. The more sober response to Young’s appointment is that he is simply unqualified. But Young does have experience in the education sector: as he was quick to point out to Paul Mason, he has opened four free schools in London that will educate almost 2,000 children and take in an above average number of children on free school meals.”

    She also says what I said about the irony of the response from the PC brigade:

    “Ironically, the hysteria directed at Young from academics and the demand that he should be sacked (No Platformed from a job he hasn’t yet begun) shows Johnson’s concerns are not misplaced. It illustrates the need for someone like Young to shake up a higher-education sector that has become censorious and politically conformist.”

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  9. I always questioned Boris’s competence to hold down a cabinet job, but his siblings seem to have been cut from finer cloth. Even if Young has qualities that Jo Johnson values, he has bl©©dy obvious flaws and it would be clear from the outset that Young would be a highly controversial appointment. Just when the government has its hands full with other matters. So is little brother also a clown? The fact that Boris defends Young and blames “lefties” for the controversy says it all.

    I heard speculation that there might be a cabinet reshuffle. Might a brace of Johnsons get shot down?

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  10. @alan
    Jo Johnson has created the Teaching Excellence Framework. It will certainly lead to more bureaucracy. It is not clear how it will improve teaching.

    He has been silent on Brexit, which is a major threat to Higher Education.

    He is now splitting HEFCE and merging one part with OFA and another part with the RCs. This is administrative reform for administrative reforms’ sake.

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  11. Pingback: Free speech, Universities and the Office for Students — Climate Scepticism – NZ Conservative Coalition

  12. I can understand the position taken by Richard Tol and Geoff Chambers but I do find it disappointing. Having read Toby Young’s columns in the Spectator for some time it is clear to me that he intensely dislikes political correctness and has a mischievous streak which sometimes leads him to be unnecessarily offensive when saying things that are deliberately calculated to annoy the politically correct. If he does this after taking up his new post he will be in trouble and deservedly so.

    However, leaving that aside, if it is possible to do so, he seems to me, for the reasons given by Paul Matthews, to be an ideal candidate. My daughter is currently at a Russell Group university and if her experience is typical, it is evident that it is only students of a left wing politically correct mindset with axes to grind who take any interest in student politics. They seem to have no real interest in freedom of expression which always seems to be trumped by other considerations, for example safe space policies.

    So I do think it is about freedom of expression. Toby Young will be for it and I strongly suspect that many of those opposing his appointment because of what he has said don’t attach the importance to it that I do.

    It is of course right that Richard Tol should not be allowed to judge his students by their appearance, sexual orientation etc. but we all know that universities take those issues seriously. It is, unfortunately, less evident these days that they take the right to freedom of expression anything like as seriously and I wish Richard had taken the opportunity to say that he too believes freedom of expression to be important. Of course he can still take that opportunity if he wishes.

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  13. Re Toby Young : I suspect Alinsky tactics are being used. They just want to win and not see a Tory succeed and will use any means necessary, just like they’d cover up an actual sex offender in the Lab/Lib party.
    They use this false equivalence of a laddish tweet, being as bad as really crossing the line into an actual sexual attack.
    Couple this with fake moral outrage and bullying by taking offence.
    Everyone knows men/women/ have laddish thoughts, most keep them secret.
    Expressing them openly on Twitter does indicate to me , a form of honesty.

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  14. Far be it from me to name-drop but the last time I spoke to Toby Young, I was surprised and disappointed that he didn’t once mention the size of anyone’s er, ego.

    It was in fact the only time I’ve spoken to young Toby. I was walking in to a session on Censorship and identity at the Battle of Ideas at the end of October and there he was, right in front of me. I knew he was Young and got the Christian name wrong. I explained that my two oldest children, of whom I am of course inordinately proud, had both done Teach First on leaving Uni and the oldest was still with them, mentoring others. So I asked about his latest censorship scandal. What he explained did not seem very favourable to the censors. My only first-hand contact with the guy and I liked him. His presentation as part of the panel had a lot about drug-taking stats in universities and was very amusing.

    I find I’m sympathetic to all sides on this page. Additional thoughts would be about what a strange thing Twitter is. But later.

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  15. Well over half a century ago, if I complained that someone had said something insulting or mocking, it invariably met with the response:

    “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me”.

    It appears that this is no longer the case, and society is infinitely the poorer for that.

    “Political Correctness” is a trend that is going to go horribly wrong.

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  16. Richard Tol (@RichardTol) says: “I should be free to comment on my students’ boobs, mock my gay students, attack the toffs, and ridicule the wheelchair-bound.”

    Yes, and the people you ridicule are free to respond in similar manner.

    The problem that I see is who decides whether you have ridiculed a wheelchair bound person? If the victims are the sole judges of such things, as seems to be the case, there is no “safe harbor”, no law you can obey, because any word you say, or fail to say, might well offend.

    There was a time when society was relatively more in agreement on what was offensive and what wasn’t. Now it is risky to tell an ordinary joke even in the privacy of your best friend’s living room; something harmless like “A man walked into a bar — you’d think he saw it first!” which could be judged sexist; pokes fun at pub regulars, and obviously favors the sighted.

    Perhaps this is why the good book says to say nothing other than yay and nay.

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  17. Kestrel27 (04 Jan 18 at 10:25 pm)
    Thanks for your understanding of my position. I don’t think Richard Tol is under any obligation to state his belief in freedom of expression. His comments are precisely about the fact that he accepts the limits on his freedom of expression imposed by his job, and he thinks that Toby Young should be subject to the same rules.

    Not so long ago the British academic world (and also the airwaves of the BBC) was full of people with funny accents, people like Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper who were only here because they knew about what freedom of expression meant (and the lack of it.) And it wasn’t about the freedom to say “knockers” in a tweet.

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  18. @kestrel
    Freedom of expression is key, and universities should be THE place where people can say whatever (they think they can support).

    We do invite controversial speakers, and the only discussion we have is which building can be more easily secured. Thanks to Spence, we have a few buildings that are naturally protected against protest.

    This is not about freedom of speech. This is about appointing someone who routinely, knowingly, unashamedly insults 55% of the people he is supposed to represent. It is the Office FOR Students. It is not the Office for Lads, nor the Office for Friends of Boris.

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  19. Geoff Chambers: I think your final sally a little cheap. I support the appointment because I see him as a strong defender of freedom of expression and not, it should be unnecessary to say, because of his crasser tweets of which I was critical.

    Richard Tol: thank you for the affirmation. We may come to this from different directions but the difference in our conclusions seems to be that you think his past behaviour ought to disqualify him whereas I think his record in education, particularly in setting up free schools, means that he should be given a chance. If he misbehaves in a similar way after taking up the post he won’t last long in it.

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  20. Kestrel, I think it’s unlikely he will ‘misbehave in a similar way’. Apparently he’s deleted thousands of tweets.

    Richard D, thanks for reminding me of where I had heard of him before. That TeachFirst thing was ‘interesting’. The website is still there, where they say “we invited a range of external speakers with differing views to debate issues around education” and then say they shouldn’t have published his article because they disagree with it. (Pasting in that url I notice that it ends with ‘continuing-conversation’).

    Richard T, I think you are mixing up different things. Yes, we academics know we can’t make such remarks about our students. But I do not think I would be fired if I tweeted about a back-bench MP for example, as Toby Young did.

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  21. Kestrel:

    I think his record in education, particularly in setting up free schools, means that he should be given a chance.

    I thought Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, made this point well with Higher education needs more people like Toby Young in CapX three days ago.

    Paul: I was trying to think why I liked Toby in person. I’ve been aware of him since his book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, at which point, without knowing much, I found him an irritating public schoolboy. I have since been impressed with the free schools he has set up, to the benefit of many who could not possibly afford the kind of education he and I benefited from. I liked him in October partly because, like me, he expressed considerable admiration for Teach First. And partly because, despite my fumbling start, he seemed to tune into my very mixed feelings. He was not impressed that he did the article for free, at their request, and they then pulled it without even letting him know. But it’s the way somebody says something like that that matters. He didn’t sound bitter but he did sound determined not to accept this kind of thing as the new normal for education.

    It was an interesting intro for me to the debate, at which Frank Furedi made some extremely interesting points about what’s new in the intolerance jungle. I was helped by being able to talk to Frank in person afterwards. That’s jogged my memory on a few related things. But must away for now.

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  22. No one who is going to be part of pushing back against the paternalistic oppression taking place on University campuses will be acceptable to the oppressors.
    The committee Toby is appointed to is not there to run academic deoartments.
    It is a committee whose job is to stop and push back against the bizarre and destructive state that the Academy has chosen to drive itself into.
    Like drunks, they are going to whine and scream against having their drinks cut off and their keys out away until they are once again sober.

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  23. Richard. I acknowledge the reasons you might favour Young, but the real questions are 1. Is there no-one else with similar qualifications (or better) to make the type of decisions that this new body will be asked to make, but who does not have his baggage? and 2. Can the Government, in its febrile state, afford the distraction of having made a controversial decision that might come back and bit them? I am persuaded by Richard Tol’s argument that Young might be made ineffective from the outset.

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  24. Alan, don’t forget the main point of Johnson’s speech! “The OfS will go further than its predecessor in promoting freedom of speech” etc

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  25. An apology is an apology. It is not given to third parties to know what its motives were, and their assumptions may be of limited value. ‘Persistent sexism’ may be a reasonable ground for dismissal – provided it persists.

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  26. Excuse me, but we are not talking about “grounds for dismissal” but “suitability for appointment”in a potentially highly sensitive role. Past behaviour always used to be relevant if only as a element in predicting future behaviours. Leopard and spots.

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  27. post hoc accusation and judgements don’t seem to actually be more than excuses to derail the work of liberating the Academy from the pernicious influence of the haters and censors.

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  28. A quote from Godfrey Elfwick: “Free speech in theory sounds like a great idea, until you realise how many people use it to say the wrong things”.

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  29. I just heard on Radio 5 Live that Toby Young has resigned from the Office for Students and he’s written a blog defending himself from some of the more extreme attacks. At some point I’d like to look at how strange Twitter is, or at least has been, in the behaviour it engenders. I’m inclined to agree with Young that his involvement in the OfS has become too much of a distraction. Cliscep’s concerns about false consensus in academia will I’m sure continue but one contrarian is not going to play an official role.

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  30. In his parting words in Boris Fanzine (aka the Spectator), Toby Young referred to misogyny, homophobia, islamophobia, ablism as “journalistic provocation” …

    That tells you all you need to know about this man.

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  31. I’m sure that’s a very fair characterisation of what he was trying to say, Richard, having not read the piece yet. But your earlier statement

    @Richard D
    No. An apology that comes after you realize that what you said affects your chances of promotion, rather than after you realize that you caused offense, is not worth anything.

    didn’t in fact quite answer my original question. But it certainly answered the question “Why some people should feel morally superior to Toby Young, assuming they can see inside his heart.” Thank you for that.

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  32. His resignation statement is here at the Spectator.

    Toby Young: Why I’m resigning from the Office for Students

    I have decided to stand down from the Office for Students. My appointment has become a distraction from its vital work of broadening access to higher education and defending academic freedom. Education is my passion and I want now to be able to get on with the work I have been doing to promote and support the free schools movement. These schools have already done a huge amount to raise standards in some of England’s most deprived areas and the next challenge is to extend those benefits to every area of educational underperformance.

    The caricature drawn of me in the last seven days, particularly on social media, has been unrecognisable to anyone who knows me. I am a passionate supporter of inclusion and helping the most disadvantaged, as I hope my track record of setting up and supporting new schools demonstrates. But some of the things I said before I got involved in education, when I was a journalistic provocateur, were either ill-judged or just plain wrong – and I unreservedly apologise.

    I would like to thank the Prime Minister for standing by me, and drawing a distinction between my earlier life and my subsequent record in education. I would also like to thank Justine Greening, who appointed me to the OfS Board and whose commitment to social mobility I greatly admire. I wish her all the very best in the future. And I’d like to congratulate Damian Hinds on his appointment as Education Secretary. I know that he is equally passionate about helping children from the poorest backgrounds to succeed in life. His job is one of the most significant in Government. I cannot think of a more important mission.

    Finally, I would like to extend my best wishes to Sir Michael Barber, the Chair of the Office for Students, and the other members of the Board. They have a difficult task ahead of them, but I cannot think of a more able group of people to take on this challenge.

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  33. This is strange timing, because just yesterday he was defended in Parliament by Jo Johnson and others. See Hansard.

    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.

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  34. “Yet none of these workings of conscience – not empathy, not moral analysis, not self-reflection, not even self-preservation – has been apparent in the collective attempted destruction of Young. No individual in this heated fury has pulled out and rethought. This speaks not only to an alarming level of supposedly left-ish intolerance today – where it is assumed that anyone who isn’t a Guardianista is unfit for public life – but also to the formation of a permanent mob, of a means of politics ungoverned by thought, reason and conscience. For this is the very definition of a mob: a process whereby a group of individuals shear themselves of the skills of moral and intellectual self-reflection for the purposes of making a large, collective howl against some person or thing that has offended their sensibilities or their dogma. The mob – today this means the middle-class Twittermob – is no longer an occasional violent outburst, as it was throughout history; rather, it is a permanent feature and function of public life in Britain, to the devastating detriment of public reason, political rationalism, individual sense and free thought.”

    Powerful stuff.

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  35. There presumably is no reason why Mr Young’s obvious expertise cannot be used by co-opting him to the panel where appropriate. Similarly if the panel is able to commission research he would be an obvious choice to conduct it.

    I’m not sure I buy into his explanation for his previous behaviour – that he was a journalistic provocateur.
    What has his more recent social media history been like? Impossible to determine now because of wholesale social (media) cleansing. The fact that he didn’t bother to cleans this record until very recently also speaks volumes.

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  36. I haven’t been following this, largely out of disinterest, and up until now had no clue about who Toby Young was or what he said that was so beyond the pale that he should be excised from public life. Therefore I shall not presume to comment, other than point out that censure by the mob doesn’t appear to be the best way to go about challenging the appointment of persons apparently made solely upon their suitability for the task at hand, and not with reference to past misdemeanours on social media.

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  37. Jaime: Yep, he’s certainly achieved that! The book became a film with Gillian Anderson I think. I found that phase of young Toby Young pretty annoying, but all from a distance. Fraser Nelson, his editor at the Spectator, made some interesting points about that and a number of other aspects of the man a day or two ago. Will dig that out shortly.

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  38. It’s hard to keep up. The latest news is that Jo Johnson has been reshuffled, to
    Minister of State at the Department for Transport and Minister for London.

    So presumably someone else will take his previous job of Minister for Universities and Science.

    I wonder if the Toby Young fiasco was a factor in him being moved?

    I also wonder whether Toby resigned of his own accord, or was pushed.

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  39. Could be both or either, Paul. But not before this

    I thought that showed class. But that’s a dangerous word, isn’t it?

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  40. Here are the first four paragraphs of Fraser Nelson on Sunday:

    A few years ago, we had a bit of a problem with Toby Young’s column – one that never quite went away. It’s called Status Anxiety, and started life shortly after he’d written a book called How to Lose Friends and Alienate People about his spectacular failing to take Manhattan. The column was intended to showcase Toby’s self-deprecating humour, and in so doing expose the pieties of those who take themselves and high society too seriously. From the offset, readers loved it.

    But for the last few years, Toby’s life has taken a different turn. He’d dedicated himself to setting up new schools for disadvantaged children, schools that he’d be happy sending his own kids to. He set up the West London Free School and co-founded three others, schools big enough to help 2,000 pupils. And this was no bourgeois bubble: a fifth of the pupils would qualify for free school meals.

    Toby had found a new direction for his energies. His column all of a sudden started being about the nature of poverty and the shape of opportunity, about the challenges that confront those who want to change the system. There came a point, about this time five years ago, when each of his columns was about education in Kenya, where he had gone to try to help children there. I sent him a polite email asking if he might change the subject away from education a bit more often. That was the problem. Easily fixed.

    It wasn’t that Toby’s column went off the boil – it was always fascinating, original, refreshing and funny. But it wasn’t quite consistent with the original “Status Anxiety” billing; those words seemed to be written for another character. Toby had once been a boulevardier, and that book about social climbing was such a success that it was made into a Hollywood film featuring Gillian Anderson, Megan Fox and Jeff Bridges. Anyone else might have dined out on that for ages – perhaps for evermore – but in all the years I’ve known Toby, he has never mentioned the book or the film to me. Schools? He never shuts up about them. He’s the same guy: he’s not pious, aggrandising, he likes a laugh, still sends himself up. But the Toby Young that I’ve known is motivated by the ability to change the system, for those with enough grit and bloody-mindedness. He doesn’t mind a fight (indeed, he’s sometimes a bit too keen on them), he doesn’t mind being mocked, nor hated. He doesn’t mind being a bete noir for the left, especially when his critics rise to the bait. Every time.

    The whole piece is called Announcing a change to Toby Young’s Spectator column. I felt I knew the guy a lot better as a result of reading it. I liked “the nature of poverty and the shape of opportunity” obsession. Pity about the offensive tweets – and anything else he’s said or written wrong.

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  41. Like Jaime, I don’t really know enough about Toby Young’s past (though I’ve heard and read quite a lot over the last few days) to offer an informed opinion on whether he has the right qualifications for the job, so I will keep quiet on that issue.

    However, I can’t help having a nagging sense of unease that someone can be brought down by a twitter mob in this way. He may well have behaved in an inappropriate way in the past, but does that prevent him for ever from taking up a role like this? In the world of criminal offences we have the Rehabilitation of Offences Act, for the very good reason that people are assumed to be capable of being rehabilitated and of genuinely regretting their earlier bad behaviour.

    I am not sure it is a healthy world where people are forever banned and pilloried for what they have done or said in the past. Who among us has never said or done anything of which we are ashamed or subsequently had cause to regret?

    By all means, if he was appointed and had then continued to behave as he had done in the past, he should be shown the door. But for past misdemeanours only? I’m not so sure.

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  42. @jaime, mark
    Again: If I would tweet the words Young tweeted, I would be fired. If a job candidate had tweeted such words, she would not be hired. Young would have been my boss’ boss’ boss’ boss. He should be held to the same standards as the people that work for him.

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  43. Perhaps Richard, but not by a baying Twitter mob consisting largely of middle class left wingers whose own standards of moral conduct are unlikely to have come under similar scrutiny.

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  44. @jaime
    Agreed. But as the storm in the media and social media had calmed down well before Young stepped down, I guess other forces were at play, foremost the realization that Young would be a liability in the next election.

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  45. Richard, my guess, for that’s all it is, is that Young lost his main support with the departure of the Universities Minister Jo Johnson. Boris’s support was too long range and if exercised would have exposed the chumocracy for what it was.
    If Young is as good and as dedicated as his supporters believe he could always, as I wrote above, be co-opted or employed by the OfS.

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  46. It’s a reasonable theory that Young’s departure was linked to Jo Johnson’s move. But who knows with these things? Young may have decided to step down quite independently, after the worst social media hubbub had died down, then learned the prime minster had decided to move the secretary of state. She has other fish to fry, or take into consideration, one assumes.

    I said earlier that I was sympathetic to all posters up to that point and it might be worth highlighting what I thought were two of the more compelling arguments from Richard:

    If a job candidate had tweeted such words, she would not be hired. Young would have been my boss’ boss’ boss’ boss. He should be held to the same standards as the people that work for him.

    Jo Johnson has created the Teaching Excellence Framework. It will certainly lead to more bureaucracy. It is not clear how it will improve teaching … He is now splitting HEFCE and merging one part with OFA and another part with the RCs. This is administrative reform for administrative reforms’ sake.

    I don’t know enough about universities to be definite on the second point but I’m automatically sympathetic. And the “boss’ boss’ boss’ boss” phrase always resonated.

    However, let’s remember that once that power relationship is actually there, plus secrecy, then abusive words and actions are far worse than Young’s out-in-the-open tweets without any such power relations involved. For example, if Young was ever shown to have said things like this in private to teenage students in one of his free schools, or to a teacher, that would be a completely different matter. But in what he tweeted he was an idiot anyway. I haven’t looked into the eugenics comments. Like Jaime, I haven’t been that interested, except in the way a name tends to be blackened these days.

    Reading opponents’ tweets in the last few days has drummed in a couple of things. I agree with Brendan O’Neill that the moral case made was often extremely shallow and this is a problem. Someone tweeted for example that Young was making light of anal rape. That is both ridiculous and very damaging.

    But as I read links to all the terrible things Young was said to have said or written I did bother to click down into one article. I realised I’d read it before and feel sure it was when my own attitude to the guy changed significantly – because of how much he admitted he’d got wrong in the early days of his involvement in the free schools movement. So here’s another lengthy extract, beginning with Young talking:

    “I am always struck with the similarity between what actors do and what teachers do. Teachers are kind of on stage and are, at some level, having to perform and having to carry off a performance. The skills aren’t dissimilar and some of the strain that puts on people is the same – it’s exhausting having to perform for four or five hours a day, sometimes more. It’s like having to do a matinee and an evening performance of a West End show every day. So, someone who is used to managing a troupe of actors, and dealing with the stresses and strains they are under, would be quite well suited in some ways to being a senior leader in a school.”

    It is a poignant and thoughtful answer. Wondering if his attention-grabbing habit has waned I ask if, given what he now knows about the difficulties of leading schools, he regrets his disparaging remarks around the time of the 2010 general election.

    “Yes. There are a lot of things I regret,” he says. “I was very critical of England’s public education system under the last Labour government, and I hadn’t grasped how difficult it is to do better, and to bring about system-wide improvement.

    “The last government and this government have achieved a remarkable amount, and I do think the direction of travel is the right direction, but there is no question that it was arrogant of me to believe that just having high expectations and believing in the benefits of a knowledge-based education for all, that those things alone would be enough to create successful schools.”

    Did he really think back in 2010 those things would solve everything, or was that just media bluster?

    “As someone coming into education from the outside, the bits you see of other schools are only the tip of the iceberg. You’re not aware of everything that is going on beneath the surface. You think, ‘well, I could do better than that’, as you are pointing to the tip of the iceberg, without realising how much more there is to it.”

    He sighs. “If I could rewind six years, and know then what I know now, I would have been much less critical of other schools, local authorities, and England’s public education system in general.”

    I begin another question. He interrupts.

    “Can I just say … one thing I really regret is that I gave a quick interview in an ITV programme about teachers in which I was quite dismissive about workload complaints. I regret that, enormously. I now know how hard teachers work and what a difficult job it is.”

    He looks pained.

    That’s from Toby Young, founder and CEO, West London free school in Schools Week in May 2016.

    Liked by 1 person

  47. Richard Tol, back a full three days ago:

    In his parting words in Boris Fanzine (aka the Spectator), Toby Young …

    It turns out they weren’t his parting words. And I have ended up reading more Boris Fanzine material in the last few days than any previous period of my life. (I signed up for an attractive three month deal in the summer and forgot to cancel my direct debits for the rest of the year, just as the crafty marketing people hoped.) Here are some of the highlights (private browsing or using another browser can sometimes help when you end up above your free pages limit, he writes, hoping to get his own back on the crafty marketing people):

    Andrew Roberts on how Gary Oldman compares to previous actors in film and TV as Churchill: in the top three out of over sixty. Easily my first click.

    Boris himself: Girl power! Educating girls can fix the world’s problems. This is also a really good piece, putting the other side of the human flourishing story after the UN secretary general had made some incredibly gloomy comments about 2018.

    The latest editorial, Something’s gone badly right with the world economy, also points to the extremely important good news at this moment that doomsayers, including of the climate kind, always seem to paint out of the picture.

    An outstanding reflection on the Toby Young ‘twitchfork’ story: Welcome to the age of the digital inquisition by Lara Prendergast, who looks and sounds a lot younger than all the other writers. In a good way.

    Rod Liddle on the same theme. Here I’ll cheat with a tweet

    And here’s one from the man himself yesterday

    The key point being that attending a conference at UCL where (perhaps) some eugenicists and neo-Nazis spoke, as a journalist, in order to prepare for a speech you’ve been asked to give at a more mainstream event, isn’t to endorse the nutters and the evil and become one of them. But the twitchfork mob clearly feel that they can now destroy Young completely and such distinctions matter not at all in that pursuit.

    Outside of the Boris Fanzine there’s an interesting, limited defence of Young on a bioethics blog. That points back to Janice Turner in The Times, who begins:

    Long ago as a magazine editor I commissioned Toby Young, as part of an exposé on cosmetic surgery, to attend a penis-enlargement clinic. Maybe he was furious that the doctor didn’t, as he’d expected, dismiss him with a “Son, you don’t need any help from me!” but Toby was foul, duplicitous and sloppy: the most obnoxious writer I ever employed.

    She doesn’t like the guy. The subheading is “Government is full of lazy, incompetent chumps but you can’t have an appointee with a Twitter feed full of sexist bilge”. I think the last part is now widely accepted. Not so much the first part. Whether all Young’s work with schools should now be flushed down the toilet is where, unfortunately, we’ve got to.

    Like

  48. @Richard D
    Teachers are indeed well-served by taking acting classes, not just for voice projection and posture, but also because teaching, like acting, is not about the teacher but rather about the material.

    Young used to slag off teachers, until he met some and discovered that he was all wrong. Tells you all you need to know about the man — and you can see why the Johnsons like him.

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  49. I’ve only just now looked properly at the 2015 quadrant article, in which he wrote this:

    “But the main objection to eugenics, at least in the form it usually takes, is that it involves discriminating against disadvantaged groups, whether minorities or people with disabilities. What I’m proposing is a form of eugenics that would discriminate in favour of the disadvantaged. I’m not suggesting we improve the genetic stock of an entire race, just the least well off.”

    That’s completely mad, and a really dumb thing to have said.

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  50. Richard Tol.
    “Teachers are indeed well-served by taking acting classes, not just for voice projection and posture, but also because teaching, like acting, is not about the teacher but rather about the material.”

    I must disagree, its not about the material but how it’s presented. If it were otherwise, why have a teacher at all – why not rely on textbooks? An entertaining teacher, one who has thought about how the material can be divided up and presented in a logical order so as to enhance understanding forms the best conduit to learning (before the learner creates mechanisms for self learning).
    I recall teaching years of a first year undergraduate geology module with a simply superb textbook. Towards the end of my teaching career I reluctantly realized that my job was not to thrust the contents of this textbook into my students’ brains, but to interest my charges in the subject, that they might become interested enough in the subject to read the textbook. So I gave up cramming the whole subject into my module, instead I concentrated on the interesting bits and added interesting examples from elsewhere. I was happier, my students definitely were and exam scores markedly improved.
    I wasn’t as good as some of my colleagues, especially one who was much loved. He taught a complimentary first year module to mine. I recall watching him talk about granite and the minerals that compose it. He took a plastic bucket and put large specimens of quartz, feldspar and mica into it. Lowering it out of sight of the students, he raised an identical bucket from which he withdraw a larger specimen of granite. Students yelled and screamed that he was cheating and that there were two buckets. What they didn’t realize was that for all of them they would always know the distinction between mineral and rock, granite was a rock and so on. The only magic was the teacher who was exercising his immense skill in teaching, creating strong memories whilst at the same time almost subliminally imparting knowledge.

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  51. Richard T:

    Young used to slag off teachers, until he met some and discovered that he was all wrong. Tells you all you need to know about the man — and you can see why the Johnsons like him.

    But unlike many such ignorant would-be experts Toby Young has admitted his faults on this. “He looks pained.” That was written by someone expecting to disagree far more with him.

    I can’t force anyone to respect him a little more for that but I know that when I first read it in 2016 I did. There were, however, many other things that I’d missed. 🙂

    Like

  52. Paul:

    That’s completely mad, and a really dumb thing to have said.

    And yet another kind of expert says:

    What’s notable from a bioethicist’s perspective is just how familiar the arguments being presented here are. It’s hard to read Young’s article without thinking of a good chunk of the work on genetic screening, and on enhancement, that’s been done over the past few years. Notably, there’s more than a hint of Julian Savulescu’s work on procreative beneficence…

    And I’m pro-life and very dubious about Savulescu and all. Coming broadly from that perspective, and a female one, I thought this was pretty balanced:

    Like

  53. @Richard D
    Judging from recent behaviour, I think that Young learned from this experience that teachers are okay, rather than that he should not express strong opinions about stuff he doesn’t know or understand.

    Many things hit a regulator at once, including unexpected things. You cannot have someone who shouts first and thinks later.

    Liked by 1 person

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