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Office for Students: Appointments

Volume 788: debated on Tuesday 9 January 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what processes were followed for the appointment of Board members of the Office for Students.

My Lords, the Office for Students board needs members who bring a broad range of skills and experience to deliver its objectives. In the recent recruitment round, six people were appointed to the OfS board, although, following this morning’s resignation, the board stands at 14 members. Appointments to the Office for Students board were made in line with the Governance Code on Public Appointments, which, as is conventional, included open advertisement, an applications process, shortlisting and interviews.

I am sure the Minister would agree that there is no place for cronyism in public appointments. Given that public appointments are based on Nolan principles, and the fact that somebody was appointed to this position who had posted on social media the most appalling comments, do those principles need to be strengthened?

I say at the outset that this is very much a time of reflection following the resignation this morning. We will want to learn from this. It is regrettable that the offensive tweets were not picked up on or before the appointment. The Prime Minister herself made it clear that a repeat of any such language from someone within a public position would not be acceptable. There is always a balance of proportionality in undertaking due diligence. In this case, there were more than 50,000 tweets, some of which were completely abhorrent. We need to learn from this and be sure that the due diligence is improved.

My Lords, with the greatest respect to the noble Viscount, the job specification required candidates to have “good judgement” and “high levels of integrity”; to,

“inspire confidence with a wide range of stakeholders”,


“demonstrate high standards of … personal conduct”.

Is the noble Viscount saying that these objectionable tweets were not known to his department and Mr Jo Johnson? Is it not the case that Jo Johnson imposed this wretched man on the board of the OfS? Will he now tell me, as Jo Johnson has been removed, that the independence of the OfS, which the Government guaranteed during the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act only recently, will now be established?

My Lords, there is no imposition of a candidate into this particular position. The current make-up of the Office for Students is a broad church. It is a broad range of people, which is what we set out to do in the first place. On the noble Lord’s question: no, we did not know about the obnoxious tweets that came out. That is why I said at the outset that we need to do better. With 50,000 tweets, some of which were completely obnoxious, this is something that we should have known about. We need to learn lessons from this.

My Lords, since the Minister has recognised that there was a process in these appointments, it follows that there must be a record of those who were involved in it. Will he tell the House, other than the Minister directly responsible, which other Ministers were involved in the process, either formally on the record or informally?

The due process was gone through. The launch was made in July and after the advertisements were laid they were closed in August. Ultimately, the Secretary of State is responsible for appointments, so the process went through. I will also say—I say this to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, as well— that Mr Young was appointed on merit, on what he had done. That is very separate from the obnoxious tweets that we know about.

My Lords, on a broader topic, given that a significant number of higher education students are actually in further education colleges, will the Minister say why the OfS has no one from the FE sector on the board? Can he point to where the champions will be for adult education and lifelong learning on the OfS board?

The challenge in making up the board is to have a broad range of skills and experiences from within the sector and beyond. I can say now, to reassure the noble Baroness, that the board is well represented with experience of higher education, with the vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, a former vice-chancellor of the private university BPP, a bursar and fellow of New College, Oxford and the chair of a performance and theatre college. It is deliberately meant to be a broad church.

My Lords, did a conversation take place between Boris Johnson and his brother, Jo Johnson, prior to this appointment?

My Lords, the furore over the appointment of Toby Young exposed widespread distaste for a casual attitude towards the relational and other harms of pornography. The recent consultation on the internet safety strategy included no measures to mitigate these harms. Can my noble friend assure me that this will now receive thorough attention given that opinion seems to be shifting on pornography?

As I believe we stated in the internet safety strategy, the issue of pornography will be considered as we develop the regulations and guidance on relationships and sex education, which the Children and Social Work Act 2017 requires us to make compulsory in all secondary schools in England. Evidence has shown that the easy availability of online pornography is changing the way that young people understand healthy relationships. We need to be aware of this and move forward.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that even his “broad church” must have some limits, so what went wrong?

I think that I have made it clear that the issue was the due diligence concerning the tweets. At the end of the day, Mr Young was appointed on merit, but there were very many tweets that we did not manage to get into—but I have made that clear in another answer.