Toby Young, the Ofs and Liberalism in Universities

On New Year’s Day the Office for Students (OfS) came into effect, a new university regulator whose job it is to “promote choice and ensure that students receive a good deal”.[1] Higher Education Minister, Jo Johnson, has also given the body the right to fine universities should they not uphold free-speech. The plan was viewed suspiciously enough by academics as it was, but when the Guardian announced in the early hours of the 1st January that Toby Young was to sit on the board suspicion turned to fury.

Young has a chequered career to say the least. He set up the first of the free schools pioneered by David Cameron and has supported the government in various avenues. However, not only does he have next to no experience in higher education but his comments over the years have ranged from deranged to downright bigoted. He has criticised New Labour ideas of “inclusiveness” which include its insistence on wheelchair ramps in schools,[2] and has an unhealthy fascination with eugenics. If this was not enough, his Twitter account has to be seen to be believed, with countless comments degrading women through promiscuous sexual slurs and insults which Young has attempted to cover by deleting all but 8,500 of his 56,000 tweets. These include while watching a Comic Relief charity appeal, asking “What happened to Winkelman’s breasts Put on some weight, girlie” and several tweets about US television host Padma Lakshmi (whom he worked with), one of which he claimed he had his “dick up her arse.” This, a man who is now assigned part of the job in monitoring the best and brightest that this country has to offer and decide if they are upholding free-speech correctly. A man who the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, believes is the “right man for the job.”

Free-speech has been a coveted subject over several years since the concepts of “safe spaces” and “no-platforming” became a popular tool amongst student bodies with figures that students have decided are racist and/or homo/transphobic have faced protests and abuse. As a student at Cardiff University, I witnessed the uproar that renowned feminist Germaine Greer received over her comments about transsexual women, an example of the rise of identity politics that has swept through university campuses, with LGBT groups particularly capable of controlling and directing the zeitgeist. From my own experience, this has created a form of ultra-liberalism, allowing students to dismiss speakers and subjects, and trample upon those yet to grasp the continuously evolving terminology regarding gender, sexual and race identity.

Although the National Union of Students have defended this policy, insisting no-platforming does not limit free speech but defends it by “allowing debate to take place without intimidation”[3], the liberal ideals of debate and free speech that were compatible and engrained within western universities have been challenged. Liberals are defending liberalism using with non-liberal values; does the end justify the means especially if students begin to see themselves more and more as consumers due to the ever-increasing levels of debt they acquire to access a university education? The head of Oxford University, Professor Louise Richardson, has challenged universities to protect free speech and called upon students to challenge the views of those they disagree with, using intellect to work out how to convince people with differing views.[4]

However, the intervention of the government has the potential to create a deeply worrying precedent. To avoid fines, universities will need to monitor what is being written and said in their universities or risk a fine and negative implications for further research opportunities. The government can and will use this to influence debate in one of the bases for originality and liberation to prosper under the mantra of improving competition and ensuring customer satisfaction. Remember, the General Election was a disaster for the Tories and success for Labour because of the surprising turnout amongst young voters in constituencies with universities. We are witnessing the place that universities hold within the national framework being challenged, and it is up to these institutions to assert their sovereignty against a government keen to crackdown on a form of liberalism opposite to their ideology.

[1] Department of Education and RT Hon Justine Greening MP, New universities regulator comes into force, 01/01/2018, Accessed: 03/01/2018, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-universities-regulator-comes-into-force

[2] Toby Young, My latest spectator column, 01/07/2017, Accessed: 03/01/2018, http://www.nosacredcows.co.uk/blog/2026/my_latest_spectator_column.html

[3] Sarah Bell, NUS ‘right to have no platform policy’, 25/04/2016, Accessed 03/01/2018, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-36101423

[4] Sean Coughlan, Oxford head attacks ‘tawdry politicians’ on university pay,04/09/2017, Accessed: 03/01/2018, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-41149074

Article by Peter Budd

Photograph – The Independent

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