A new universities minister has been named in Theresa May’s cabinet reshuffle. Former prisons minister Sam Gyimah takes over from Jo Johnson, who has been moved to the Department for Transport (DfT). Johnson has faced pressure in recent weeks over the appointment of Toby Young to the board of the Office for Students (OfS), the body responsible for holding universities to account. Among those raising concerns, Imperial’s assistant provost (equality, diversity and inclusion) Professor Stephen Curry, vice-provost (education) Professor Simone Buitendijk, and College Union President Alex Compton co-signed an open letter to Johnson, questioning Young’s suitability for the role.
Young, a journalist and advocate for free schools, was criticised heavily for his lack of experience and relevant qualifications. Further anger arose over comments Young had made on Twitter and in his columns, which were derogatory to women, disabled people, and working class students. Critics have claimed that these statements are inconsistent with the OfS’ duty to “promote equality of opportunity in connection with access to and participation in higher education”. Young subsequently deleted thousands of tweets from his account, describing his previous comments as “sophomoric and silly”. Professor Curry’s letter, however, notes that Young was already a “mature adult” when the tweets were posted. The letter further states: “[Young’s] attempt to characterise these [comments] as student behaviour shows that he is out of touch with the standards of conduct we would expect of our students at Imperial College.”
The letter also criticised Young’s articles on educational theory and ‘progressive eugenics’, calling them unscholarly and flawed.
Johnson claimed that Young’s appointment would help to provide “the scrutiny and challenge to the education sector that students and taxpayers deserve” as Young is not a university insider. This seemed to indicate that the Department for Education (DfE) was backtracking from its previous exaggerated claims that Young had held teaching posts at Harvard and Cambridge university. Young also distanced himself from these statements, acknowledging that while he had taught undergraduates at both universities, he had never held an academic post.
Johnson’s defence of Young has been linked to his subsequent transfer to the DfT. Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Theresa May said she had not been aware of Young’s past behaviour at the time of his appointment.
“Frankly I’m not at all impressed by those comments,” May said. “If he was to continue to use that sort of language and talk in that sort of way, he would no longer be in public office.”
Despite this, May seemed to accept Young’s apology for his previous statements and declined to sack him.
She was spared the humiliation of a U-turn as Young resigned just eight days after his appointment, claiming that his “ill-judged comments” had become “a distraction from its [the OfS’] vital work of broadening access to higher education and defending academic freedom”.
An Imperial College Union spokesperson told Felix: “I am glad Toby Young has chosen to step down. His inappropriate and often offensive comments and arguments made him unsuitable for the position.” They added: “He is not representative of students and the values of the higher education sector.”
Johnson was also removed from his post. In addition to Young’s appointment, Johnson had clashed with the prime minister over tuition fees and the inclusion of overseas students in migration targets.
Justine Greening also lost her position as education secretary and left the cabinet after refusing the job of work and pensions secretary. She is replaced by Damian Hinds, who was previously Minister for Employment
Who is Sam Gyimah?
An Oxford-educated former Goldman Sachs banker, Gyimah became the Conservative MP for East Sussex in 2010. He served as a government whip and David Cameron’s parliamentary private secretary before being appointed prisons minister in July 2016. Gyimah presided over increased security measures for prison officers, a crackdown on prison contraband (including drugs, drones, and mobile phones), and an increase in the maximum jail sentence for stalking from five years to ten years.
What else is Toby Young up to?
An annual eugenics conference held at UCL has been linked to white supremacists and Nazis in an expose published by London Student. The London Conference on Intelligence (LCI) has been derided by academics as pseudoscience. Previous speakers include Toby Young, who resigned from the board of the Office for Students this week, and Richard Lynn, the president of the Ulster Institute of Social Research. Lynn funds the LCI and other far-right conferences via the Pioneer Fund, a listed hate group. UCL is investigating, and stated its commitment to combating racism and sexism.