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Office for Students

Volume 636: debated on Tuesday 27 February 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education to make a statement on the appointment of the board of the Office for Students.

The Office for Students, which will be operational from April, is the biggest regulatory change to higher education in 30 years. It will run a new regulatory framework that will, for the first time, put the interests of students at the heart of higher education regulation. It will focus relentlessly on student choice and value for money and ensure that the concerns of all students in higher education in England are heard in the corridors of power. It has a wide-ranging remit and powers to deliver for students.

The OfS is ably lead by Sir Michael Barber, who has a long record of working for Labour and Conservative Administrations, including advising a Labour Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education, and he has also been a Labour parliamentary candidate. Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive, has a background from Universities UK and as an equalities lawyer. They are supported by a board of 12 further members with a wide range of talents and from different backgrounds, including senior leaders in higher education, graduate employers, and legal and regulatory experts, as well as a student representative. I am particularly pleased that Chris Millward, the director of fair access, sits on the board, putting widening participation and fair access at the heart of the organisation. Toby Young would have been just one non-executive member of this board.

The board will put quality of teaching, student choice and value for money at the heart of what it does. The commissioner for public appointments advised the Department on 11 January, two days after my appointment, that he was looking into the appointments processes for the OfS, and the Department has provided him with the relevant paperwork. We are grateful to him for forwarding his report yesterday. His report recognises the good intentions of Ministers and officials, and that the advisory panel did judge candidates on a fair and impartial basis. That said, we note his findings and will carefully and seriously consider his recommendations.

The commissioner raises important points with regard to due diligence in public appointments. We have already accepted that in the case of Toby Young the due diligence fell short of what was required, and therefore the Department has already reviewed its due diligence processes and will seriously consider the further advice from the commissioner.

The commissioner has rightly observed that it was wrong not to have made a formal request to him regarding the approach the Department took in appointing the student experience role, and therefore this was in breach of paragraph 3.3 of the governance code. We should have clarified in the announcement that it was an interim position, although the candidate had been informed of this, as had all failing candidates in the process. I understand that informal contact was made, but I accept that this should have been formalised with the commissioner. Without this formal advice and under pressure to make an appointment by 1 January, the announcement was not made in line with the commissioner’s expectations.

I can confirm that in line with the commissioner’s steer, we will shortly be launching a recruitment campaign for a permanent student experience representative, and we intend to appoint before the end of June this year. We are glad that the commissioner agrees that the incumbent in the interim role, Ruth Carlson, is free to apply. I want to put it on record that she is doing an important job, and I extend my thanks to her for agreeing to accept the interim appointment.

There are lessons to be learned here, and we will learn them. I will write to the commissioner shortly with an initial response to his findings and the next steps we will take with regard to his recommendations.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

Weeks ago, the Government told this House that the process was

“a fair and open competition”


“in accordance with the code of practice”.—[Official Report, 8 January 2018; Vol. 634, c. 42-52.]

But the commissioner has found that this is not the case. One candidate was rejected on the basis of their past public statements. Incredibly, this was not Toby Young; it was the student representative, rejected due to the desire of

“ministers and special advisers not to appoint someone with close links to student unions”,

as the report notes. Can the Minister tell us why being elected by students makes someone unsuitable to represent them? How could the then Minister tell us that it was not “reasonable” to vet social media, when that was done for the student representatives?

The report found that the appointment was influenced by special advisers at No. 10, and not by the panel. The commissioner concludes that, as the Minister said, the code was broken. Is the Cabinet Secretary now investigating that breach? Is the Minister’s predecessor really still suitable for ministerial office given the findings of this report? Does the Minister believe that after this level of interference we can possibly call the Office for Students an independent body?

The report also notes that an all-male appointment panel was used twice. Will the Minister end that practice immediately? The commissioner made a number of other recommendations. Will the Minister tell us which of the lessons that he talks about his Department will take on board? He has a simple choice: learn the lessons, or make the same mistakes again. What will it be?

The hon. Lady asked a number of questions that I will take in turn. Her first question relates to having a National Union of Students rep on the board. As she will know, in addition to having a senior representative on the board, there is also a student panel. I met the student panel within, I think, the first week of my being appointed. [Hon. Members: “Answer.”] I am giving an answer. I spoke to the student panel directly; it is doing a great job. There is an NUS representative on the student panel, but there is nothing to say that the person on the board has to be an NUS representative, given that the board has not been constructed to be the place where delegates of represented bodies congregate. The NUS can therefore influence what is happening in the Office for Students.

On the wider question of social media and social media vetting, clearly the social media vetting of Toby Young was not as extensive as it could have been, also given that there were 40,000 tweets.

With regard to the influence of special advisers, Members across this House will know that the way government works is that civil servants and advisers advise but ultimately Ministers decide. In making a decision, Ministers make a judgment call, especially in recruitment decisions. The judgment call in this case was that, having considered the advice from the advisory panel that had looked at the candidates and all the information, none of the three student representatives put forward was suitable. Therefore, because someone needed to be in place by 1 January, an interim member was appointed with a view to reopening the competition later on.

I take the hon. Lady’s point about the all-male appointment panel. I think that an attempt was made to make sure that the panel was more representative, but, for whatever reason, someone could not be available. [Interruption.] The key thing, if the hon. Lady will stop commenting from a sedentary position, is that three out of the five members who were eventually appointed were women. Sometimes, in these situations, it is as important to look at the outcomes as the process.

As we look at the process and the lessons that we have to learn, it is important that we do not forget the ground-breaking role that the Office for Students will play in empowering students and championing them—something that this Conservative Government have delivered that was never delivered by Labour.

I welcome the Minister’s comments, but may I ask him about a wider issue? What I do not understand about the board of the Office for Students is that, given what the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have said about technical education and further education and the link to higher education, why on earth does the Office for Students not have serious individuals from the further education sector and from the apprenticeships sector, many of whom are students doing degree apprenticeships?

The Chairman of the Education Committee asks a very important question. As he will be aware, however, this is a regulatory body for the higher education sector. He will also be aware that the panel that has been appointed for the higher education review includes some very strong representation from the further education sector. Baroness Wolf of Dulwich is very well known for her work in her reviews of further education, and Beverley Robinson is the principal of an FE college. However, this particular regulatory body is for the higher education sector.

This report confirms what we all knew—that the appointment of Toby Young, someone who expressed many misogynistic and prejudiced views, should never have happened and could only have happened due to Government meddling. During the previous UQ on this matter, the Universities Minister defended the appointment, stating that it was

“made in line with the Commissioner for Public Appointment’s code of practice, and Mr Young was appointed following a fair and open competition.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2018; Vol. 634, c. 42.]

Does the code of practice therefore include a recommendation to tip off a friend about open positions? If the Education Secretary expressed concern, who is actually in charge of the Department? Is it appropriate that the Universities Minister has simply been shuffled to another Department, given that the current Minister has confirmed that there was a breach of the governance code? Given the stated disparities in process and ministerial input for the candidates and the two different positions for consideration, what reviews are being taken across the entire Government, including on the role of special advisers? What is going to be done to eliminate the blasé crony appointment system that the Government have been operating?

Just to be clear about what the commissioner has said in relation to the code, he cited a breach in relation to paragraph 3.3, which is a particular reference to the failure to consult formally—there was an informal consultation—before the announcement of the appointment of the student representative. As I said in my opening remarks, there is a lot to be learned here. The Cabinet Office public appointments team, who own the governance code, are working with the Department on the commissioner’s findings and will be writing to the commissioner about how we intend to proceed.

Is the National Union of Students doing enough to counter the rise of extremism and radicalisation on campuses? What powers does the Office for Students have in that area?

The first part of my hon. Friend’s question should be directed at the National Union of Students, but he is right that the Office for Students has a wide-ranging remit when it comes to promoting—not simply tolerating—free speech in our universities. Under the current law, the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, the only recourse if someone’s free speech has been infringed at a university is for them to go to court. The Office for Students can investigate, promote culture and, in extremis, fine universities that are not taking seriously their responsibilities on free speech. That is a huge development.

This report is absolutely damning, particularly in relation to the previous Universities Minister and his role in this appointment. Are there not very serious questions that the previous Minister should be answering to this House about his claim that it was not appropriate and not proper to do due diligence on candidates—he made that statement from the Dispatch Box—when his Department, and he himself, ordered that very same due diligence against a candidate he did not want to appoint? When is he going to come to this House to apologise, at the very least, else further action be taken?

The same due diligence was carried out by the same advisers on all the candidates. As I said in response to an earlier question, the due diligence could have been more comprehensive and extensive.

Throughout the general debate we have in this country on higher education, there is typically a focus—perhaps understandably —on finance. Does the Minister agree that we need to be equally focused on outcomes and on the quality of the degrees that graduates obtain? Can he assure me that the inception of the Office for Students will help us to achieve that focus? What really matters is that our graduates have the best quality education.

My hon. Friend makes the important point that, for many students at university today, the important thing is that they are getting value for money, that they get what they pay for, and that their degrees are worth the paper they are written on. That is what the Office for Students, which this Government created, is set up to do. There are lessons to be learned but, as we have these discussions, it is important that, in the big picture, we do not forget what the Office for Students can do and what it can deliver for our students.

Toby Young believed in eugenics. He made terrible remarks about disabled people. He made awful remarks about women. This is a man who the Minister’s predecessor thought was fine to be on the board of the Office for Students. What confidence should working-class young people, under-represented groups and ethnic minorities across this country have in the Office for Students if the Minister who did this cannot come to the Dispatch Box to apologise or step down?

The right hon. Gentleman is someone who likes to have perspective and a balanced view on things, and he will know that Toby Young also set up a free school mainly to give disadvantaged people in some of the poorest parts of our country the excellent education they deserve so that they can improve their prospects in life. Yes, there are issues here that are questionable, but we always need a sense of perspective when we consider such things. Some of the things that Toby Young did are admirable and laudable, and those are the reasons why he was considered to be a serious candidate for the job.

I beg the Minister to stick to the point. We do not live in some Soviet or Putin-style kleptocracy; we are supposed to be living in a modern parliamentary democracy in which public appointments are done properly, with scrutiny and transparency. That certainly has not been the case with this appointment, and it certainly was not the case the other day when the proposed chair of the Charity Commission was unanimously rejected by the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Why cannot the Government get this right?

It is precisely because we live in a well-functioning democracy that we are here and you—not you, Mr Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman—can ask those questions. For perspective, there were 15 appointments to the board. There are question marks, quite rightly, over the appointment of Toby Young and the process for the student representative, but 15 candidates were appointed to the board.

It is a sign of a well-functioning democracy that you are here, too, Mr Speaker. Does the Minister agree it is important that the Office for Students has the requisite skills and resources to be able to play its role in tackling radicalisation on our campuses?

Absolutely. It is important that the Office for Students has the relevant skills, and also the laser-like focus and the teeth to do something about this. I am glad that we will have a regulatory body with the teeth to do that very effectively.

I start by thanking all Members who signed the letter to the commissioner for public appointments asking for his investigation. I also thank him for yesterday’s response.

Despite what the Minister says, the report clearly shows a lack of proper process in the appointment of Toby Young and in relation to the student appointment. We need to hear a lot more from the Minister about how lessons will be learned. The commissioner did not look at the person specification, which required candidates to want to contribute to the delivery of the Government’s priorities—not that they should have experience of higher education—but that politicised the process right from the outset. What will the Minister do to address that and to get the person specification checked?

If the Government were interested in politicising the process in our favour, we would not have a former Labour parliamentary candidate as the chair of the Office for Students—he has advised Labour Prime Ministers and Conservative Ministers. All the candidates had to declare their political affiliation, which was subsequently published.

In the case of Ruth Carlson, for example, there are no discernible political views, but she is very well qualified. She is a student ambassador at the University of Surrey. She was also her second-year course representative and a member of the scholarship committee. When we think of these representatives, we should not always default to the lobby organisations or to people we think fit the bill; we should cast the net wider to bring in the widest possible experience and fresh thinking.

The Minister has the audacity to talk about casting the net wider when another old Etonian mate of his friends has been appointed through a process that was utterly corrupt. The report says that the key question is whether each candidate was treated fairly and impartially; the answer here is no.

The Government are in absolute disarray, and the Minister is making the situation worse. He says that he is willing to learn lessons. Will he at least confront the fact that this process is not fit for a modern nation like ours?

I stopped listening when the hon. Gentleman said that Toby Young is an old Etonian—I do not believe he ever was.

Toby Young is the chief executive officer of the New Schools Network, which has been awarded a series of Government grants to provide advice to people who are opening a free school. In the light of the blatant cronyism we have learned about as a result of the report, do the Government now intend to review those contracts and determine whether due process was followed there?

The Department is looking at options for support around the New Schools Network. An announcement will be made in due course.

Hard cases make bad law. It is absolutely clear that the previous Minister made an outrageous, dogma-driven choice in Toby Young and, as the current Minister has admitted, clearly failed to undertake due diligence. I urge that we should not allow that to lead to the abdication of responsibility for appointments to a self-perpetuating quangocracy that looks after the great and the good.

I reject the idea that there is a self-perpetuating quangocracy here. I have made it absolutely clear that Toby Young’s experience of setting up a free school and his commitment to social mobility meant that there were strong reasons for him to be a candidate. Of course, subsequent information has revealed that he should not have been appointed, which is why he is no longer on the board. We need to look clearly at how these processes work in the future. We will work with the commissioner and we will make sure we implement the recommendations in a way that makes the process more effective next time around. On the student representative, we have someone who is doing a sterling job and has the confidence of the chair. So perspective is needed—this is not cronyism. One appointment should not have happened and that person is no longer on the board, and we will learn lessons as far as the process is concerned.

I congratulate the Minister on getting his alibi in early during his response to the statement. I should not have been surprised, because on 15 January, when he answered my written question, he unusually provided quite a lot of information about this appointment, which showed that he had looked under the stone and not liked at all what he had seen. Why is the Minister who was responsible for the appointment not being held to account for his actions under the ministerial code of conduct?

As I have said, we will be responding to the comments of the commissioner for public appointments. The Department is working with the Cabinet Office, and we will do what the commissioner has recommended we do to make sure that this process works better in future.

When the Government are considering this, will they think about why the same level of due diligence was not applied to Toby Young? Was it Government and ministerial interference—yes or no?

Ultimately, this is a departmental issue. The Department has taken responsibility and will act on the recommendations of the commissioner for public appointments.

The Minister rightly reminds us that this was a judgment call for the then Minister. Does this Minister think it was a sound judgment call to allow No. 10’s political advisers to blacklist anybody with NUS involvement and then to appoint somebody who was a chum by not following any proper process? Was that a good judgment call by his predecessor?

Every decision that any Minister makes involves a judgment—it is not a scientific process. Clearly, all the issues had been gone through, with the input of the advisory panel and civil servants, and everyone involved then came to a judgment. Clearly, in retrospect, Toby Young should not have been appointed, which is why he is not on the board. In terms of making sure the process works better, the Department, which has ultimate responsibility here, will make sure that we have a much more robust and stringent process next time.

As chair of the all-party group on students, may I express concern about how the credibility of the Office for Students has been damaged by the then Minister’s handling of these appointments? There is a legal requirement for one board member to have experience of representing students, yet it appears that Ministers have actually taken the best possible experience—involvement in a student union—as a reason to not make an appointment.

I am sorry that the Minister shakes his head, because that is what the commissioner says in the report. Will he assure me that under the new process that he has indicated the Government will follow, involvement in a student union will not be a barrier to consideration?

The reputation of the Office for Students has not been damaged by this. It has a board with 15 members. It is led by Sir Michael Barber, who is very well respected across the House, and Nicola Dandridge, who has a long and proven track record in higher education. Toby Young was going to be one non-executive board member. Of course experience of being involved in a student union is particularly important, which is why there is a member of the NUS on the student panel. As a Minister, I value students’ views, which is why I have been on a tour to talk to students across the country. It is important that student unions have an input, but it is also important that so do all the other students who do not stand for election and are not politicians, but have views on public policy and how that has an impact on them. It is important to make sure that their voice is heard, too. That is what we are doing with the Office for Students and it is what I am doing as a Minister.