University watchdog’s regret over Toby Young appointment

Sir Michael BarberImage copyright Universities UK
Image caption Sir Michael Barber said he regretted the appointment

The chairman of university watchdog, the Office for Students, says he has “learnt a lot” from the controversial appointment of Toby Young to its board.

Sir Michael Barber told MPs it was a mistake not to look more closely at the journalist’s history on social media.

Mr Young resigned from his OfS post amid criticism about tweets and articles he had written in the past.

Sir Michael also came under fire for not having a representative from the further education sector on its board.

He was appearing before the Commons cross-party Education Select Committee over value for money in higher education.

Asked to reflect on the reputational damage done to the OfS by the process of appointing members to its board, Sir Michael said: “I should have asked at the end of the interview – he did a very good interview – I should have asked the Department for Education to do more due diligence on his social media, given his reputation.

“They say, honourably, that they think they should have done it without being asked, but I think I should’ve asked. That was a mistake.

“I learnt a lot from that and it did cause some reputational damage to me personally and to the OfS in a sensitive phase, so in that sense I regret it.

“But we’ve got to the right place – we’ve got a fantastic board.”

However, the committee was not convinced and went on to quiz Sir Michael about the lack of a representative from the FE sector on the OfS board.

‘Incredibly disappointing’

Committee chairman Robert Halfon said: “I do find it absolutely astonishing… and incredibly disappointing, given the role that further education has now with higher education, that there is not one representative of FE or apprenticeships on the board.

“I think it’s shocking to be honest that this important part of our education sector is neglected yet again, yet again.”

Sir Michael said one of three student candidates he had recommended for the board would have been a very strong candidate to represent FE, but was not endorsed by the secretary of state for education.

He said that, due to Mr Young’s resignation in January, the board now had a vacancy to fill and the OfS would be advertising for it shortly.

“I would welcome good applications from people in the FE sector,” he said.

Sir Michael assured MPs he had “definitely got the message” regarding the apparent oversight of appointing an FE representative to the board.

“I’m totally sympathetic to the angle that all of you bring here.”

He said the OfS would now consider setting up an apprenticeship panel similar to the student panel it has already created.

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