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‘Avoidable mistakes’ made in vetting of board for higher education watchdog

Toby Young quit the Office for Students last month after controversial comments made online came to light.

“Avoidable mistakes” were made in the vetting process by which Toby Young and others were appointed to the board of the new higher education watchdog, an investigation has found.

The report by the commissioner for public appointments criticised the Department of Education (DoE) for failing to delve back far enough into the social media activity of Mr Young prior to him being given a role on the board of the Office for Students (OfS).

It also said there was “clear disparity” in the amount of checks made between different candidates, revealed political interference in decision-making processes and complained of “serious shortcomings in terms of fairness and transparency” in respect of one of the appointments.

The investigation was launched following the controversy surrounding Mr Young’s hiring as a board member and his subsequent resignation.

The journalist-turned-free school pioneer quit the OfS last month and apologised “unreservedly” for a string of controversial comments he had made online in recent years.

Ministers had been forced to defend his appointment in the House of Commons following a backlash from MPs, including prominent Tories, and a petition calling for him to be sacked gathered more than 220,000 signatures.

According to the report, the DoE admitted it had not trawled back far enough into social media and was unaware of the tweets by Mr Young – even though the social media accounts of the initially preferred candidate for the “student experience” role were “extensively examined”.

“Due diligence was inadequate and not conducted in respect of all candidates on an equal basis, compromising the principle of fairness,” the report stated.

It added: “Mr Young’s reputation as a controversialist, in itself hardly a secret, should have prompted further probing to examine whether what he had said and done might conflict with his public responsibilities and standards expected on the OfS board.

“Second, the rapid disclosure of what were described as offensive tweets in the days after his appointment suggests that it was not that hard to find them, that not much delving was required.”

The commissioner, Peter Riddell, also revealed that email records mentioned “No 10 Googlers”, with the social media history of one candidate brought to the attention of a minister.

“Notably, no such exploration or research was made on other possible appointees, including Mr Young,” he added.

The report also described how the decision to appoint one particular candidate to the board “was heavily influenced, not by the panel, but by special advisers, notably from 10 Downing Street”.

Email records revealed a “desire” among ministers and special advisers not to appoint someone with close links to student unions, such as the National Union of Students, it added.

In his findings, Mr Riddell concluded that the advisory panel did judge candidates on a fair, open and impartial basis, but said “avoidable mistakes were made”.

He said: “My investigation uncovered a number of areas where important principles in the Governance Code were breached or compromised in the appointments to the board of the Office for Students.

“In my experience, this episode is unrepresentative of the hundreds of public appointments that take place each year, but it is important that lessons are learned – not least so that talented people from a wide range of backgrounds are willing to put themselves forward to serve on the boards of public bodies.”

Responding to the report, Prime Minister Theresa May’s official spokesman said: “It is routine for ministers to consider advice from officials and advisers before they take a decision on who to appoint.

“The Commissioner has reaffirmed the importance of departments undertaking more due diligence and the Government will act on the Commissioner’s advice on this issue.

“In relation to Toby Young’s appointment, that was made in line with the code of governance for public appointments.”

Ministers had concluded that the appointment of student representatives who publicly opposed the Government’s Prevent anti-radicalisation policy or supported no-platform campaigns “could undermine the intended policy goals of the Office for Students”, he added.

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