In a brutal flourish of history’s whip, the son of the man who coined the term “meritocracy” has been given a job for which he is not remotely qualified. In 1958, Michael Young published the satirical novel The Rise of the Meritocracy, set in a world where a system of personal merit has replaced the old-fashioned ruling gentry, only to harden into its own arbitrary social class. Now, to general outrage and dismay, his son Toby Young has been made a member of the British government’s new regulating body for universities, the Office for Students (OfS).
The OfS will be responsible for “driving value for money” in universities, Jo Johnson, the minister for universities and science, told The Guardian. It will also enforce “free speech” rules, which will prevent students from “no-platforming” offensive speakers or from assembling lists of trigger words. These new regulations make the OfS’s ideological drift very clear indeed. But Young’s appointment—alongside a former executive at HSBC—empties the OfS of all credibility. The only contact Young has ever had with education work is in cheerleading for Conservative anti-P.C. policies on education. His appointment epitomizes the bilious mixture of Tory snobbery and vulgar populism that gave us Brexit.
Young is a British journalist best known for judging Top Chef, his novel How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, and his op-eds in The Spectator, where he is a contributing editor. He has no experience of working in higher education whatsoever, besides a couple of fleeting gigs teaching during a failed Ph.D. attempt.
Young does have a record, however, of publicly supporting the Conservative Party, helping lead its supposed defense of free speech from the pitchfork-wielding members of the left. He has a record of blaming black Britons for not getting into Oxford, saying “the reason there are so few black British undergraduates at Oxford is because so few apply.” (As it happens, he didn’t get into Oxford on his own: His father called up the university and got him in.) He has a record of tweeting about British politicians’ cleavage. He has a record of calling inclusivity “ghastly,” and blaming New Labour for it:
Schools have got to be “inclusive” these days. That means wheelchair ramps, the complete works of Alice Walker in the school library (though no Mark Twain), and a Special Educational Needs Department that can cope with everything from dyslexia to Münchausen syndrome by proxy. If [former Education Secretary Michael] Gove is serious about wanting to bring back O-levels, the government will have to repeal the Equalities Act because any exam that isn’t “accessible” to a functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six will be judged to be “elitist” and therefore forbidden by Harman’s Law.
Those absurd and cruel words were published in 2012 by the Spectator. But he has been talking down to students, disabled and otherwise, for a long time.
In 1988, Rachel Johnson—sister of Foreign Secretary Boris—edited a collection of essays about Oxford by herself and other undergraduates. Toby Young’s was called “Class.” It has been much-quoted in the years since and in recent days, but his observations on working class “stains” (the other half of the student body, distinct from “socialites”) bear repeating:
Small, vaguely deformed undergraduates would scuttle across the quad as if carrying mobile homes on their backs.
Replete with acne and anoraks, they would peer up through thick pebble-glasses, pausing only to blow their noses. It was as if all the meritocratic fantasies of every 1960s educationalist had come true and all Harold Wilson’s children had been let in at the gate.
Young’s mockery of students who are not like him has spanned several decades. And his respect for teachers is no better. He has claimed that teaching is “not that tough”:
He has a record, in short, of toadying for Conservative Party policy while promulgating the nastiest small-c conservative ideals. And he has dressed this up as a noble effort to protect Britain’s most cherished freedoms. In a Facebook post defending his appointment, Young wrote that he would be “defending the right of students, academic staff, and visitors with unorthodox views to speak freely without being howled down by mobs of political extremists.” For good measure, he added, “I’ve been a defender of free speech since reading JS Mill’s On Liberty aged 16.”
Young’s resumé boasts two items on education, but they’re not professional. In 2011 he co-founded a school, called the West London Free School. A free school is a type of academy, state-funded but not controlled fully by the local authority—one initiative of David Cameron’s “Big Society,” which was an attempt to make British citizens take on the responsibilities traditionally held by government. Local parents can set up a free school, if they have the time. The National Union of Teachers warned that such schools, partly free of oversight, “fuel social segregation and undermine local democracy.” Young now runs a group called the “New Schools Network,” a charity that advises other groups of nonprofessionals who wish to set up their own free schools.
This work is nakedly partisan. And it shows why Young was picked for this job: He is a public figure who, because of his lack of experience with higher education, his right-wing views about education in general, and his penchant for gleefully trolling liberals, can be expected to advocate a hard-line Conservative policy. A regulatory body needs to be neutral and trustworthy, or it simply cannot perform its work. The field of higher education is especially fraught territory, since topics like “free speech” are evidently not well-defined or well-understood by members of Theresa May’s cabinet.
Great Britain’s stock fell fast in 2017. Brexit represents the most self-sabotaging instincts in its people, facilitated by the most cynical and self-serving politicians. Issues like freedom of expression need clarification, not moralizing waffle. Young specializes in the latter, and nothing else. His appointment to the OfS is the worst example of the U.K.’s slide towards a small-minded conservatism that belittles the vulnerable while rewarding the pompous.