The Department for Education (DfE) has defended the appointment of Toby Young to the government’s new higher education watchdog in the face of mounting concerns over his suitability for public office.
The ex-journalist and free schools advocate was appointed to the board of the Office for Students (OfS) by the education secretary, Justine Greening, earlier this week and immediately faced claims he was under-qualified.
Since then further questions have been raised about his suitability after a string of lewd comments he has made in the past about women, working class people and eugenics were brought to light.
Young, who appeared on the US TV series Top Chef with Padma Lakshmi, referred repeatedly to the size of her breasts on Twitter. He made similar comments about other women, including the television presenter Claudia Winkleman and a Labour MP.
After sustained criticism over the comments, tens of thousands of tweets disappeared from Young’s account on Wednesday. Young had told the Guardian on Tuesday he had tweeted more than 56,000 times; by Wednesday afternoon, fewer than 8,500 remained.
A job specification drawn up by the government said ministers expected board members to display “high standards of … personal conduct”, and required “openness” and “transparency”.
Responding to questions about Young’s past comments on Wednesday, a DfE spokeswoman said he had already “expressed his regrets”.
“Public appointments, including to the OfS, are made in line with the code of governance for public appointments,” she said.
Young refused to answer questions when contacted by the Guardian on Wednesday but has previously acknowledged posting “sophomoric” and “politically incorrect” tweets.
In a post on Facebook on Wednesday, he said: “I think it would be a shame if people who have said controversial things in the past, or who hold heterodox opinions, are prohibited from serving on public bodies.”
According to the job specification, when making appointments to the board, Greening is legally obliged to consider the importance of whether or not the applicants had previously worked in higher education.
The DfE had claimed that Young held teaching posts at Harvard and Cambridge universities, but he has acknowledged that he has never had a job in academia. He carried out undergraduate supervision during his time as a student, as is usual for postgraduates.
On Wednesday, the DfE said that in considering people for the board it was “interested in hearing from applicants who have knowledge of or experience in one or more areas, including promoting the experience of students, understanding of the needs of consumers, and market regulation and competition across all sectors, not limited to higher education.
“This is reflected in the diverse experience of the board, which includes the managing director of a leading employer, the chief executive of a global law firm and a current university student.”
Dawn Butler, the shadow secretary of state for women and equalities, told the Guardian she planned to question both the prime minister and the leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, about the appointment.
She said Labour would write a series of letters to senior figures and hoped to find a way to secure a parliamentary debate on the issue, forcing ministers to defend Young’s previous comments.
Jess Phillips, the MP who chairs the women’s parliamentary Labour party, said: “How would Theresa May feel and look when inevitably every ill thought out word about poor people, women, lesbians and people without education is read out to her in parliament? It is not a good look.”
The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said there had been a “ridiculous outcry” over the appointment and he believed Young would “bring independence, rigour and caustic wit” to the OfS. “Ideal man for job,” Johnson tweeted.
In response to Johnson, Michael Gove, the environment secretary, tweeted: “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?”
The Conservative MP, Margot James, said Young was “worthy of his appointment”, but that it was a “mistake for him to belittle sexist comments by labelling them ‘politically incorrect’, a term frequently used to dismiss unacceptable comments about, and behaviour towards, women and minorities”.
According to the DfE, appointments to the board were expected to be made for an initial period of up to five years, with an option for this to be extended by ministers.