On New Year’s Day the Office for Students (OfS) came into effect, a new university regulator expected to “promote choice and ensure that students receive a good deal”. 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, but when the Guardian announced 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 his comments over the years have ranged from deranged to downright bigoted. He has criticised the idea of “inclusiveness” which include its insistence on wheelchair ramps in schools, and has an unhealthy fascination with eugenics. Young also labelled working class undergraduates “vaguely deformed”.
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. While watching a Comic Relief charity appeal, Young tweeted: “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 supposed to be monitoring the best and brightest that this country has to offer. 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” have become a popular tool amongst student bodies. Guest speakers and lecturers who students have decided are racist or homo/transphobic have faced protests. 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 in identity politics that has swept through university campuses, with LGBT groups particularly capable of controlling and directing the zeitgeist.
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”. 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.
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. 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. Many will see this as a move to influence political debate on campus and suppress ideologies the government is not keen on. The Ofs is a body that is not needed, and the personnel hired are simply inadequate.