Office for Students defends status after damning report

Sam Gyimah has refuted claims that the government’s new higher education regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), had its reputation damaged by the controversial appointment of ex-journalist Toby Young earlier this year.

The university minister’s comments follow a report published by Peter Ridell, the commissioner for public appointments, on Wednesday 28 February.

The report, which Labour MP Lucy Powell has described as “absolutely damning”, found there was “clear disparity” in the way different candidates were treated during the OfS’ application process.

According to the report, which set out to detail the level of political interference in the OfS’ appointment process, the former universities’ minister Jo Johnson contacted Toby Young about applying for a position on the higher education regulator. The report concluded that under the codes which govern public appointments, there were “serious shortcomings in terms of the fairness and transparency aspects.”

Gyimah said he does not believe the revelations have hurt the government body’s reputation. He said the chairman of the watchdog, Sir Michael Barber, had “great credibility” and that Toby Young’s appointment was only one of a 15 strong board.

Toby Young stepped down from his position as a regulator nine days into his job after controversial statements which he made about eugenics and women’s breasts emerged.

The universities minister did admit that “no-one would have wished what has happened,” and added: “things could have [been] done better.”

Gyimah also explained that, moving on, the OfS board would have “proper student representation,” after the report revealed that Downing Street advisers had attempted to block student members with a history of student union involvement.

Gyimah also commented on recent criticisms of universities referring to value for money, size of graduate premiums, and the actual purpose of universities.

He said recent criticisms do not represent “a sort of annus horribilis [horrible year] for higher education, a storm to be weathered in the hope of calmer times ahead.”


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Mingming Zheng

July 2021
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