Speaking with the benefit of hindsight, Sam Gyimah, minister for Higher Education, said Toby Young shouldn’t have been appointed to the Office for Students (OfS) board.
His remarks follow a critical report by the Commissioner for Public Appointments into the OfS recruitment process.
The Commissioner was ‘extremely disappointed’ by Department for Education (DfE) foot-dragging in supplying requested information.
When material was eventually received, the Commissioner found due diligence checks were inconsistent. Social media activity of the preferred candidate for the student experience role had been ‘extensively examined’ but Young’s was not.
Former education secretary Justine Greening originally questioned the proposed appointment of Young ‘in terms of time commitment’. The DfE provided a list of Young’s ‘merits’. Significantly, this didn’t refer to checks which would have shown Young’s appointment was a potential embarrassment.
The Commissioner heard Gyimah’s predecessor Jo Johnson told officials to inform Young about the advert to find members of the OfS board. This was not treating potential candidates equally. It suggests Johnson wanted Young to apply and if he did so he could be successful.
Evidence showed ministers and special advisors (SPADs) had been keen not to appoint a candidate with close links to student unions for the ‘student experience role’. This hadn’t been made clear in candidate information. The rejection of the ‘initially preferred appointable candidate’ had invoked ‘a “catch-all” generalised objection based on political views’.
The Commissioner warned the impartiality of public body boards was at risk when ministers and SPADs took a ‘too partisan’ approach. This criticism prompted Nic Daking MP (Lab) to ask Gyimah whether Jo Johnson had made an unsound ‘judgement call’ by allowing Number Ten’s SPADs to ‘blacklist anybody with NUS involvement’.
This follows earlier concerns by Varsity that the OfS board contained only one student and no representative from the Universities and Colleges Union. It now appears there may have been anti-union bias among ministers and SPADs.
Lyla Moran MP (LD) asked if the DfE intended to review contracts with the New Schools Network (NSN) where Young is director. A new contract is due to start on April Fools' Day. Gyimah said the DfE was ‘looking at options for support’ for NSN and would make an announcement in ‘due course’.
Responding to a similar question in the Lords, Viscount Younger of Leckie said NSN was a ‘small independent charity’ and he didn’t ‘want to go further on that front’. But NSN’s independence has often been called into question. Its directors have all had links to the Conservatives: Rachel Wolf formerly worked for Michael Gove, Natalie Evans (now Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) was formerly deputy director of the Conservative Research Department and Young is also closely associated with Gove. The Charities Commission has warned NSN more than once about the need for charities to be impartial.
Perhaps the Toby Young debacle will result in NSN’s contract being awarded to an organisation which isn’t so closely allied to the Tories and which will stick to supporting free school applications rather than banging the drum for free schools and hyping their performance.