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Toby Young regrets 'silly' past comments but defends role at university regulator

Toby Young said that some of his past comments had been 'deliberately misinterpreted' Credit: PA

Toby Young has said he regrets some "sophomoric and silly" comments he made in the past, but has insisted he is the right choice to sit on the board of the government's new university regulator.

The free school entrepreneur proved a controversial pick to join the Office for Students (OfS), with critics querying whether he has the expertise for the job and pointing to remarks he made in the past on social media, including about women's breasts.

In a series of Twitter messages and a post on Facebook, Mr Young defended himself, arguing that a lack of direct experience in the higher education sector does not disqualify him from serving on the OfS board.

He also suggested some of his past remarks have been "deliberately misinterpreted" in order to portray him as "a caricature of a heartless Tory toff".

Mr Young was named on Monday, along with five others, by the Department of Education as the final six people to join the 15-strong board of the OfS.

With the regulator's remit set to include ensuring universities protect free speech on campus, Mr Young said there was a "certain irony" that his past comments were being turned against him.

Given that defending free speech will be one of the OfS's priorities, there's a certain irony in people saying I'm 'unfit' to serve on its board because of politically incorrect things I've said in the past.

Some of those things have been sophomoric and silly, and I regret those, but some have been deliberately misinterpreted to try and paint me as a caricature of a heartless Tory toff.

For the record, I'm a supporter of women's rights and LGBT rights.

I'm also a defender of teaching children with disabilities in mainstream schools.

– Toby Young
File: Boris Johnson, as mayor of London, with Toby Young (left) Credit: PA

Mr Young has been able to rely on important Conservative backers, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who tweeted that the uproar over the appointment was "ridiculous".

Also offering his support was former education secretary Michael Gove, who, as part of the coalition government, spearheaded the free school programme with which Mr Young became associated.

In a tweet referring to Mr Johnson's backing of Mr Young, he said: "Quite right too - how many of Toby Young's critics have worked night and day to provide great state schools for children of every background?"

Among Mr Young's critics, however, is Labour MP David Lammy, who tweeted that Mr Young was "wholly unqualified" and that he had made "hugely offensive remarks about disabled and working class students".

Mr Lammy also tweeted: "If a school teacher, university tutor or anyone working in education made any of the unacceptable remarks that [Mr Young] has made they would most likely be sacked. As HE Minister in last Lab Govt I am deeply disappointed by this decision and will be asking Qs in Parliament."

Mr Young, in addressing concerns that he did not have direct experience in the "university sector", acknowledged that "I haven't worked at a uni since I abandoned my PhD at Cambridge in 1990."

But he noted that he was a "passionate advocate of widening participation since the mid-80s", has co-founded four free schools, runs a charity that works with groups hoping to set up schools, has served as a Fulbright Commissioner since 2013 and supports work to help disadvantaged children gain scholarships to US universities.

Meanwhile Twitter users have been sharing many of Mr Young's "silly" past comments online.