Jo Johnson’s Office for Students: Straight outta Pearson

There is some good news on this New Year’s Day of 2018. Nobody in academia ever need feel the demoralizing burden of imposter syndrome ever again

The announcement at midnight GMT of Toby Young’s appointment to the board of the Office for Students came as a shock. That’s why it was buried, rather than greeted, by the distraction of fireworks and revelry.

I like to think there is a diversity of opinion on higher education represented by my Twitter follows. Nevertheless, my timeline revealed a universal sense of outrage at Young’s lack of any obvious qualification for the post. I outline some of the reasons we might all be concerned about this appointment.

For five years Toby Young ran a free school and associated trust, but stepped down in 2016 remarking that the project had been much harder than he had thought.  His other career highlights are within the field of journalism and he currently sits as associate editor of The Spectator. His real expertise seems to be in restaurant and food journalism.

The post requires oversight of the new regulatory body for higher education whose priorities are: “to promote choice and opportunities for students, encourage competition as a means of promoting the student interest, promoting value for money in the provision of higher education and driving equality of opportunity in connection to access and participation in higher education. Let nobody say Toby Young is not concerned with fairness and equality. In an article entitled ‘The Fall of the Meritocracy” (2015) he reveals he is an advocate of behavioural genetics, a theory that “cognitive ability and other characteristics that lead to success, such as conscientiousness, impulse control and a willingness to defer gratification, are between 40 per cent and 80 per cent heritable.”

In other words, those of us concerned that young men  and BME students fail to achieve at the expected level at university can relax; we can just attribute it to their inherited IQ and leave questions of inadvertent discrimination unexamined. Young believes that members of a cognitive elite with IQs over 125 will inevitably be the ones to enjoy high socioeconomic status. Tell that to the growing army of casualized academics with PhDs. Furthermore, he believes bright people are few and far between in low paying jobs. Tell that to my New York taxi driver who just educated me on Persian poetry. He couldn’t talk to his literature PhD wife about it – she was only interested in the status of the job, not its substance.

The threat that a cognitive underclass will be excluded from this Brave New World can also be solved. Young offers a solution based on as-yet unavailable technology of progressive eugenics. If the embryos of lower IQ parents could be screened, and their higher IQ embryos implanted, then inequality would be reduced. This innovation should be ringfenced for the less intelligent to offset the heritability of disadvantage. This is: a) an improbable scenario that a new and desirable technology would be placed solely at the service of the disadvantaged, and b) only deliverable by a despised ‘big government’ which in the US anyway, seems rather averse to making known technologies and societal goods – contraception, healthcare or education – available to the underprivileged. I’m aware there is enough controversy about the reliability of IQ tests for children and adults, let alone speculating on how we might test embryos for intelligence. In any case, it employs an a priori argument that there is a genetic basis for intelligence.

Similarly, any obligation of the OfS to ensure equality of access to universities will not disturb Young’s conscience. In a 2012 Spectator column, he pens this objection to the adjective inclusive:

Schools have got to be “inclusive” these days. That means wheelchair ramps, the complete works of Alice Walker in the school library (though no Mark Twain) and a Special Educational Needs Department that can cope with everything from Dyslexia to Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. If Gove is serious about wanting to bring back O-levels the government will have to repeal the Equality Act because any exam that isn’t “accessible” to a functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six will be judged to be “elitist” and therefore forbidden by Harman’s Law.

These are the published opinions of Toby Young, prospective board member of the Office for Students. It’s not a case of no-platforming. This man is inimical to the OfS essential requirements for the post:

  • Genuine interest in contributing to the delivery of the Government’s priorities for higher education and effective running of OfS.
  • Candidates should be able to demonstrate good judgement and high levels of integrity. This as part of a commitment to the seven principles of conduct in public life.

Jo Johnson urges us to embrace the new Office for Students. Putting students at the heart of the system. Strengthening the student voice. Except there is only one student representative on the board. If there is another seat destined for a candidate who has “recent and substantial experience of representing the interests of students” let’s hope this is not the one assigned to Toby. Not to worry, though. In higher education today, we are more comfortable making all important judgments on quality of teaching and research by reference to unreliable proxies. This means that the central concerns of the OfS will be to “promote choice and opportunities for students, encourage competition as a means of promoting the student interest, promoting value for money in the provision of higher education and driving equality of opportunity in connection to access and participation in higher education.” No thought that an up-to-date curriculum might be important to students, or teaching staff who have contracts which allow them to build the kind of sustainable academic careers from which expertise and quality emerge.  Freedom of speech is only likely to be regulated insofar as universities permit themselves to become platforms for some speakers whose opinions might bring them into conflict with another avowed purpose of the OfS – ensuring “equality of opportunity in connection to access and participation in higher education”. It is rather difficult to feel an equal member of a community which requires that your identity, not that of a more favoured group, is subject to interrogation and skepticism.

At least the OfS guardianship of the student experience will be unencumbered by any need to consider research, which is now the purview of UK Research and Innovation. Probably this is a first step in unbundling the more marketable aspects of universities, and we see the direction of travel signaled by the new Knowledge Exchange Framework The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 has as a specific goal to open the door to more private providers, excuse me – challenger institutions – as we must use the compulsory language of competition. So it now makes sense when we see the board of the OfS being stuffed with collaborators who are well disposed towards privatization of education. This project, under the guise of ensuring value for money, will be delivered by the privatisation crusaders at the Office for Students. Also on the board is Carl Lygo, VC of BPP University, part of the Apollo Group which includes the for-profit University of Phoenix in the USA. What the two institutions have in common is that they focus on degree programs which are vocational in nature. The suspicion is that inviting more private providers in the UK will act as asset-stripping of the most marketable (and cheaper to teach) university programs, like law and business. A further suspicion is that the attraction to new HE providers will be students who are eligible for tuition loans.  Indeed, the University of Phoenix has been under criticism for preying on US service veterans who are entitled to educational benefits.

Sir Michael Barber, the Chair of the Office for Students has an equally tight relationship to the new world of commercialized education. He was Chief Education Officer at Pearson, the publisher whose aim to commercialize education was achieved first by capturing the market in textbooks, followed by taking over the testing regimes (including the influential PISA tests). Once you have defined what it is schools must teach, you are then in a position to privatize schools. This has become particularly successful in developing countries, anxious to appear ‘competitive’. This enterprise has often appeared altruistic, such as the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund – a for-profit venture fund launched by Barber to support low-fee schools in India, Pakistan, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and the Philippines.  Given that Barber is the author of An Avalanche is Coming we may surmise his attitude to the economies of scale promised by ed-tech ‘learning products’. This ‘Starbucks style learning has worked well in the test-bed of the developing world, and is about to be rolled out, with ministerial blessing from Jo Johnson, in British universities.

This is what is known in 2018 as disruption. The mantra is “move fast and break things.” Like all destructive children, there is no consideration about whether the things belong to you, or whether they are valuable. The universities and higher education institutions I care about, and you care about, belong to the learning communities that constitute them. However, they are at risk from regulation by a group of people who are hostile to the aims of higher education for the public good. These are not reflective, nurturing people who care what they leave behind them. They are not the world’s philanthropists. They are profiteers, contemptuous of academics with more noble aims. We may find that the appointment of Toby Young is short-lived. We must still be vigilant about the rest of them, because otherwise there really will be an avalanche, and this time academics whose mission diverges from the profit motive may find themselves buried.

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