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A well-connected, ambitious blowhard: Toby Young is just what education doesn’t need

A well-connected, ambitious blowhard: Toby Young is just what education doesn’t need
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I didn’t go to university with Toby Young, controversial appointee to the new Office for Students (OfS) board, but I feel like I did. You’ll meet a fair few Tobys at the union bar, cracking one decent joke for every 25 sexist ones, loudly advocating their tediously contrary opinions late into the night and then bizarrely emerging, three years later, with a first- class degree and a job offer at a national newspaper.  

God loves a trier and high-ranking media execs love a chancer. Certainly some kind of all-powerful deity must be looking out for the Tobys. I’m not saying they always land on their feet but to get into Cambridge University I needed 11 A-grade GCSEs, four A-grade A-levels, plus a Ucas statement stuffed with enough extra-credit activities to make Malala Yousafzai look like a slouch. To get into Oxford, Young needed, by his own admission, two Bs and a C at A-level, plus a phone call from his dad. Who was Toby Young’s dad? Baron Young of Dartington, a pioneering sociologist who also — you’ll enjoy this — happened to coin the word “meritocracy”. 

After Oxford, Young worked briefly for the Times then Vanity Fair — he was sacked from both — wrote two well-received books and had his experiences turned into a crap film starring Simon Pegg. He reinvented himself as a campaigner for free schools, became a prominent cheerleader for the Conservative Party and appeared on Come Dine With Me. He seems to have done everything except work in higher education in any official capacity. The Department for Education said he had, but Young clarified that supervising undergrads while researching a later-abandoned doctorate doesn’t count. 

So credit where it’s due; it’s not Young seeking to represent himself as other than what he is: a well-connected, inexplicably ambitious blowhard who, at 54, retains the sense of humour of a desperately undersexed undergrad. By lapping up all the status and sinecures that come his way, he’s only doing what all right-thinking Tobys do and always have done. It’s the DfE that comes off looking most shabby here. 

There are plenty of people who believe higher education is a public good which should be state-funded, not a business run for profit, but none of us is currently in government. Universities Minister Jo Johnson made his intentions clear when he set up the OfS and described it as “a classic marketing regulator, rather than a funding council”. The only confusion is why anyone would imagine a man of Young’s reputation could plausibly pass as a representative of students’ best interests.

In 2001, Young’s dad wrote of his disappointment at how Blair’s government had fundamentally misunderstood his 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. It was “meant to be a warning” about what happens when the leaders of a supposedly meritocratic society start to believe their own hype: “So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves,” he wrote, presciently.

Perhaps, in a decade or so, Johnson will similarly be wondering aloud how we all missed the true intent of the, presumably satirically named, Office for Students. “Doh,” he might say, “if we wanted staff or students to have a voice, we’d have appointed some NUS reps, like they asked us to! No, Toby is there more as an educational aide, a reminder that our society rewards connections and unearned privilege over ability or hard work, despite any pretence otherwise.” 

And for that role, you have to admit, the Toadmeister is uniquely well qualified. 

Ann’s right, we need a man in the House

You’ll no doubt have caught the first episode of Celebrity Big Brother this week. What feminist would miss it? Channel 5 is marking the centenary of women’s suffrage with an all-female line-up. Or at least it is until tomorrow night, when the first of a likely seven male housemates turn up. Lady Constance Lytton was on hunger strike for weeks at a time, and 48 hours without male company is the best they can do? 

 Still, it was enough to ensure the participation of Ex On the Beach babe Jess Impiazzi and ex-MP Ann Widdecombe as revealed on Tuesday. (Though why anyone imagines Widdecombe sets a high bar after Strictly is a mystery.) Widdecombe also elicited audience disapproval by admitting she’d “prefer a few men around the place”. 

 But is she the enemy? Television will doi its bit for gender equality when CBeebies animation Hey Duggee remembers to refer to “firefighters” instead of “firemen” and BBC One thrillers such as McMafia remember to include a single female character with the personality to distinguish her from the hotel wallpaper. 

In the meantime, Widdecombe’s wait to initiate her flirtation with ex-footballer John Barnes is neither here nor there. 

Cheer up, you can get through winter

Okay, huddle around, and not just for warmth. We need to put our heads together to come up with some survival strategies for this cursed month of January. 

Here’s what I’ve got so far: 

1) Book a cheap Mediterranean holiday to give yourself something to look forward to instead of focusing on all the New Year deprivations. 

2) Better still, give up on giving up. What were you thinking? Now is when you need all your lovely, cosy vices the most. 

3) If all else fails, FaceTime a friend in New York and politely ask about the weather. Those poor fools are really suffering.

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