Free speech works both ways – as Toby Young is finding out

In Michael Young’s 1958 satire The Rise of the Meritocracy, he speaks of men with “poor ability but rich connexions”. One such man, his son Toby, has found the new year particularly arduous, with news of his appointment to the board of the Office for Students garnering vociferous criticism on the grounds he is unsuited to such an elevated position. Dawn Foster, freelance writer on politics, social affairs and economics writes in The Guardian.

The attacks do not stem broadly from his lack of qualification: boards benefit from wide-ranging expertise that can be gleaned from far outside the field. The problems with Young’s appointment are twofold: the government embellished his qualifications, for reasons that can only be related to the expectation of a backlash to his appointment. Second, he has cultivated himself as a toxic figure, having spent decades confecting and publicising offensive opinions, from an obsession with the breasts of public figures, to comments on the weight of celebrities, to an association with eugenics.

The official job of the new Office for Students (OfS) is to regulate the higher education sector in the interests of students. But, over Christmas, higher education minister Jo Johnson talked up its role in issuing fines and sanctions for universities that are deemed to be failing to protect free speech.

If Young walked away from the OfS, it wouldn’t be a shame. Not just because he’s unsuited to join the board, but because the regulator simply shouldn’t exist. Giving Young, but not the National Union of Students, a seat on the board shows how unserious it is. This is the latest in a number of attacks on higher education and attempts to further marketise the sector. No one I have spoken to who works in academia or who understands higher education can figure out what the OfS is expected to achieve when it comes to free speech.

There is a risk that talking up OfS powers on free speech creates a culture of fear, leading to a clampdown on student protests and organising, especially anti-fascist campaigning on campuses. Young believes that protecting free speech will be one of the OfS’s priorities.

The irony is, he is learning swiftly that free speech includes not only his right to express any opinions that bubble up half-formed into his brain then out on to Twitter, but also protects the right of people to criticise him. He has embarked upon a spree of deleting tweets, presumably in an attempt to rein in some of the furore over his past comments. The person whose job it will be to attack no-platforming seems to be no-platforming himself.

Read the full article Free speech works both ways – as Toby Young is finding out

What do you think of Toby Young? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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