Toby Young was headhunted by then-universities minister Jo Johnson as Downing Street’s favoured candidate to shut down dissent on the government’s Prevent programme (Preventing Violent Extremism) across the higher education sector.
That’s what the new report by the Commissioner for Public Appointments implies from the results of its wide-ranging investigation into the appointment of Young to the Office for Students (OFS), a new government-approved regulatory body for universities sponsored by the Department of Education.
While the report’s documentation of the blatant pattern of Downing Street attempting to influence the selection of candidates to the OFS board has received ample media coverage, less attention has been paid to the role of Prevent in explaining that pattern.
According to the new report, senior ministers vetoed potential candidates for OFS roles due to their expression of critical views on government policy, especially in relation to the government’s Prevent programme.
Candidates who were involved with student union groups such as the National Union of Students, as well as those who support the NUS’ ‘no platforming’ policy against proscribed groups “holding racist or fascist views” (such as the English Defence League or al-Mujahiroun) were also vetoed by Downing Street, found the report.
The new report thus reveals the Orwellian role that Downing Street officials hope the body will play in policing free speech across Britain’s higher education institutions.
The report sets out the findings of the public appointments commissioner’s investigation following the resignation of Toby Young from the OFS board in January. Young resigned from the post after widespread public objections to his appointment, based on a long history of disparaging statements about women, the working-class and disabled people, and a disturbing fascination with eugenics.
The report confirms that Young was informed about the role by civil servants at the request of then universities minister Jo Johnson, but that candidates were treated “inconsistently”, with Young in particular receiving no scrutiny of his social media profile, unlike other candidates whose social media activities were examined in detail.
“… the decision on whether or not to appoint one candidate in particular was heavily influenced, not by the panel, but by special advisers, notably from No 10 Downing Street.”
Although that candidate had been found “appointable” by a minister based on “history, affiliations and social media activity,” the advisers rejected the candidate “on the basis of public statements and student union activity:
“The department argues that attitudes toward free speech on campus and to the Prevent agenda were relevant to the published criteria of delivering the Government’s priorities for higher education and effective running of OFS.”
The report goes on to highlight ministerial distaste for the National Union of Students:
“The submissions and email records show that there has been a desire amongst ministers and special advisers not to appoint someone with close links to student unions, like the National Union of Students. This was not made clear in the advertised candidate information.”
Extraordinarily, the report shows that Downing Street’s rejection of candidates went against the OFS interview panel’s finding, and even against the “declared preferences of the Chair [of OFS] and DFE officials.”
Appointable candidates preferred by the OFS were rejected after a No 10 Downing Street special adviser provided information about their “recent views on a number of controversial issues.” These concerned:
“… political factors completely unrelated to the remit of the OFS.”
The report further refers to a letter to the commission from the Department of Education sent on 7th February, clarifying that a whole swathe of appointable candidates were simply rejected out-of-hand because of their opposition to the government’s Prevent programme, and their support for no-platforming of racist groups on campus.
This was, the DfE letter claimed, to protect “free speech” and regulate the implementation of the controversial ‘Prevent duty’, which requires universities and schools to monitor students and even nursery children for being ‘at risk’ of extremism.
The ‘Prevent duty’ has come under heavy criticism from teachers, academics and students for conflating legitimate scepticism of government policies with vulnerability to terrorism. Both the National Union of Teachers and the National Union of Students say that Prevent stigmatises Muslim students wholesale, fuels usually groundless suspicion, and undermines inclusive communities.
But according to the new report by the commission for public appointments, the DfE’s February letter to the commission essentially confirms the government’s intent to shape the OFS into a pro-Prevent quango. The text of that letter reads:
“In particular, ministers took into account the policy context and new legal remit of the Office for Students to regulate the implementation of universities’ legal responsibilities on Prevent and on free speech. Ministers concluded that it would undermine the intended policy goals of the new regulator to appoint student representatives who publicly opposed the Prevent duty and/or supported no-platform policies. Taking all these factors into account, ministers concluded that none of the candidates were right for the role.”
The commissioner’s report concluded that this explanation displays “too partisan an approach to candidates’ views”.
The report noted that the criteria identified in the DfE’s February latter were never transparently communicated to candidates, and led to the preferred candidate being rejected due to:
“a ‘catch-all’ generalized objection based on political views.”
The whole episode illustrates Downing Street’s growing propensity to police free speech, ironically, in the name of ‘free speech’.
In this case, it seems, the OFS is viewed by the Prime Minister and her cohorts as a mechanism to enforce a uniform political agenda across the UK’s higher educational institutions, designed to filter out legitimate political dissent — in particular, criticisms of Prevent, which are widespread across the education sector. This included opposing student ‘no-platform’ policies to ban racist and fascist speakers from universities.
In short, Downing Street used the Prevent agenda to justify appointing a white supremacist misogynist to the board of its new education regulator. This should raise alarm bells about the government’s creeping attempts to instrumentalise Britain’s education sector as a mechanism of state social control and Tory propaganda.