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1 January 2018

Why giving a job to Toby Young shows Jo Johnson’s university regulator is doomed from the start

The Office For Students might not succeed in doing anything other than getting good headlines for Jo Johnson.

By Stephen Bush

Unhappy new year: academics in England have been given an unlovely present from Johnson, the higher education minister, in the shape of the final six members of the new Office for Students, including the polemicist, director of the New Schools Network and founder of the West London Free School, Toby Young.

The appointment is riling academics because Young has next-to-no experience in higher education and no experience in academic research at all. Adding to the problem for some is Young’s long and established record of inflammatory articles about student diversity. His appointment is being welcomed by some on the right because of his record in the secondary education sector and his vocal participation in the “defence” of free speech, which is supposedly under threat from a new generation of increasingly illiberal students.

I’ve written on why the “war on free speech” is overwritten before and I don’t want to go over old ground: the bigger problems with the OfS are, as Nick Hillman tells the Guardian, that its remit is simply too large for it to function effectively. The biggest loser in that is likely to be research, which is poorly represented across the 15-member-board. Young is the highest profile and most visibly unequipped in this area but in general the experience of academic research in the new body is some way short of what one would wish.

The cause of that problem is twofold. The first is simply that the body is tasked with doing two important roles: the first is the management of funding and the second is the broader governance of universities, with particular reference to the student experience.  That reflects on the fact that British universities do three things: the first is of course to educate domestic students, the second is research, the third is effectively to run the United Kingdom’s neglected and unappreciated export industry: that is, the provision of higher education to the global rich. (That latter role is not just confined to the very top universities: the University of Sunderland is a particularly successful institution as far as attracting overseas students goes.)

So it does make sense to have a body that does for students what Ofcom and Ofgem do for users of communications and energy markets respectively, but by bundling that in with the responsibilities of Hefce, which handles funding, the government is likely to end up with a body which does all of these things badly. (Although research itself will be handed to a separate body, funding decisions will be made by the OfS, which means that it will have research implications.) 

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Added to that you have the second problem, which is that the Office for Students is being used effectively to boost Jo Johnson’s political profile by nodding at whatever idea is currently fashionable on the British right. A combination of social media – now every student excess is posted online, which exaggerates botht the scale of the problem and its novelty – and the Conservatives’ poor election result means that the in doctrine is that there is a problem on university campuses. So in comes a bunch of powers for the OfS that wouldn’t tackle the problem even if there is one but do make good headlines in the right-wing press for Johnson. There is very little in Young’s CV to recommend him to the board, but he is popular and influential on the right, so there goes a board position for him too.

And that’s one reason why the OfS is likely to go down in history as a failure.