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In the news: 12 January

12 January 2018

Toby Young goes after May backs him, but MPs from all sides savage appointment

Toby Young finally stepped down from his position on the board of the new Office for Students (OfS) on Tuesday morning. UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said it was right he resigned, but that he never should have been appointed in the first place.

Doing his best to ride out criticism of his offensive tweets last week Young offered an array of weak defences ranging from the fact he was young when he made the remarks (he was in his late 40s) to the fact that it was a witch-hunt led by the left.

The likelihood of Young surviving increased at the weekend when the prime minister waded in with a typically blundering response. She told Andrew Marr that she had no idea Toby Young had said such "distasteful" things in the past and that if he did it again he would lose his job. The bizarre remark seemed to suggest that prior offence, no matter how grim, was no bar to public office or a reason to be sacked from it.

However, one Tory MP with a bit more gumption was the education select committee chair Robert Halfon (sacked by May from the further education brief), who wrote in the Times that the appointment of Young reinforced "negative stereotypes of the 'chumocracy', the defence of the indefensible, and an image of [the Tory] party as heartless and cruel."

Making further mockery of the idea that it was some lefty witch-hunt that did for Young was a debate in the House of Commons on Monday where MPs of all stripes attacked him and his appointment. Universities minister Jo Johnson, in his last act before being bundled off to transport, was left trying to defend both Young and the appointment. By 6am on Tuesday morning Young has gone.

Toby Young debacle prompts due diligence investigation 

The Young resignation leaves the faltering OfS in something of a mess. Already under fire for the lack of staff, student, and further education representation on the board, the fledgling body is now under investigation for the Young appointment.

In the Times on Thursday the commissioner for public appointments Peter Riddell said Toby Young's record was hardly a secret and a quick Google search would have revealed his previous offensive comments.

He said the fact that neither ministers nor the department were aware of his previous comments as a serious, and avoidable, failure of due diligence. He has since written to the chair of the education select committee setting out the terms of his investigation and notes that Young was considered an appointable candidate by a panel chaired by OfS chair Sir Michael Barber and then selected by ministers.

Greening and Johnson gone in government reshuffle

The ministers involved in picking and then defending Toby Young have left the Department for Education following a reshuffle. While most commentators accept it was Jo Johnson who appointed Young - a former colleague of his brother Boris - the list of new year appointees to the Office for Students board went out in education secretary Justine Greening's name.

This week she refused a move to Department for Work and Pensions and was replaced as education secretary by Damian Hinds. Johnson was moved across to transport and replaced by former prisons minister Sam Gyimah, who in turn was replaced by Lucy Fraser.

New guidance for senior pay not tough enough says UCU

The Committee of University Chairs (CUC) has launched a consultation exercise aimed at helping draw up new guidelines on excessive senior pay. The new code aims to ensure senior staff receive "fair, appropriate and justifiable" pay and to improve transparency around remuneration decisions.

The Guardian reported that critics say the code lacks teeth as compliance is voluntary and the CUC is regarded as being too close to vice-chancellors. Sally Hunt told the paper: 'If we are serious about tackling the problems of senior pay and perks in our universities, then we need a body not so closely linked to vice-chancellors to look at it. The time has come for vice-chancellors and their supporters to be removed from the setting of their pay and for a national register of senior pay and perks.'

Elsewhere this week, Times Higher Education revealed that the average salary and benefits of a Russell Group vice-chancellor at £331,641 in 2016-17. Once employer pension contributions are included, the average cost of pay packages stood at £355,670. Whilst, after revealing that Scotland's best paid principal saw his pay shoot up from £290,000 to £366,000 between 2012 and 2016 - a rise of almost 25 per cent, the Times went with the headline "Strathclyde University chief receives lowest pay rise in five years".

Some universities complied with Tory MP's demand for Brexit details

There were big differences in the responses of universities to the controversial letter asking for details of Brexit teaching sent to them in October by the government whip, Chris Heaton-Harris, revealed the BBC research this week.

While some denounced it as "sinister" and having the "whiff of McCarthyism", others, such as the University of Kent, were very happy to send the information Heaton-Harris was seeking, and invite him to be a guest speaker.

Mr Heaton-Harris, a staunch Eurosceptic and the third most senior government whip, wrote to universities in October asking for "the names of professors at your establishment who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit." Of 59 universities that responded to Mr Heaton-Harris's letter, 28 were cooperative, providing Mr Heaton-Harris with most or all of what he asked for.

International students prove their worth while EU academics head for the door

International students are worth £20bn to the UK economy, according to a report by London Economics for the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) released yesterday. The analysis says on top of tuition fees, their spending has become a major factor in supporting local economies. Hepi told the BBC the figures support calls to remove students from immigration targets.

At the start of the week the Independent reported that more than 2,300 EU academics have resigned from British universities over the past year amid concerns over a "Brexodus" of top talent. New figures show a 19 per cent increase in departures of European staff from universities last year compared to before the EU referendum, and a 10 per cent rise from 2015-16.

Industrial action suspended at University of Manchester

On Tuesday, UCU suspended industrial action at the University of Manchester until the end of February to allow for further talks to try and resolve the position of one staff member facing the threat of compulsory redundancy.

The university had announced plans to make as many as 171 members of staff redundant in May. However, following two days of strike action in October, the university said no academics would be made compulsorily redundant.

Following the strikes, UCU members have been engaged in "action short of a strike" that has seen them work only their contracted hours and not take on extra voluntary activities. UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: 'This is a significant outcome that should make it clear to other universities and vice-chancellors that UCU will vigorously oppose compulsory redundancies throughout the university sector.'

Last updated: 26 March 2020