MPs have backed the National Union of Students (NUS) president to replace Toby Young on the new universities regulator, after the journalist and free schools campaigner stood down amid a storm of controversy.
Shakira Martin, a 29-year-old single mother from a working class family, applied to sit on the board of the Office for Students (OfS) but was unsuccessful.
After Young, 54, quit on Tuesday and apologised for sexist and other offensive tweets and writings that caused outrage, Martin again put herself forward for the role:
Labour MPs Wes Streeting and Jess Phillips supported Martin to take Young’s place on the OfS.
Streeting said her appointment would be “no better antidote” to the controversy over Young.
Martin’s background is in stark contrast to Young’s, the son of a peer whose appointment triggered accusations of a “Tory old boys network”.
He wrote for The Spectator when Boris Johnson, now foreign secretary was editor. Before Young’s resignation, Johnson called the outrage over his appointment “ridiculous”.
Martin grew up with eight siblings and left home at 16 to escape drug abuse by a close family member.
The mother-of-two left school with just one GCSE – a B grade in RE – and dropped out of sixth form college, but was motivated to return to studying after the practice manager at the doctor’s surgery where she worked at began harassing her.
“I was young and would be late for work quite often,” she told HuffPost in April. “It wasn’t very late – like three minutes a day.
“Because of that, he used to say things like: ‘Bend down and touch your toes so I can kick you up the arsehole.’”
She credits her time in further education with helping her understand that the behaviour she faced in a previous job at a doctor’s surgery amounted to harassment.
She later represented herself at an employment tribunal over the matter.
In May, Martin told BBC Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour: “Against all the odds, I should have been in jail or dead.”
She said: “You can’t choose the life you are born into but it’s about how you use those experiences to better yourself as a person.
“My success is nothing if I can’t bring a whole trail of young women in here.”
In a statement after Young resigned, Martin said it was “the best thing he could have done, with over 200,000 signatures on the petition calling for his resignation the only way to move forward was for him to go”.
She said OfS board was “not representative of the higher education sector”.
The board has 15 people but just one student representative, an engineering student at The University of Surrey.
The other members include the managing director of Boots, the co-chief executive of law firm DLA Piper and a former group head of external affairs and sustainability at HSBC.
It is chaired by Sir Michael Barber, a former advisor to the education secretary who headed Tony Blair’s delivery unit from 2001 to 2005.
The OfS will be advised by a student panel that will include Martin but she has said the NUS needs a place on the board to be “the voice of students”.
Martin said the board’s make up “does little to win the confidence of the sector, or the students in whose interests the body purports to operate”.
“This suggests that the Office for Students will be ill-equipped to tackle the problems facing students and our sector, which run much deeper than the chaos of [Young’s] appointment,” she added.
“We hope that the OfS will use this opportunity to reflect on its purpose as it looks to the future and what that means for the millions of students across the country.”
A Department for Education spokesman told HuffPost UK that a decision on whether to replace Young will “be taken in due course”.
He added: “Everyone appointed to the Board brings valuable experience which will be vital to the role of the new higher education regulator and we remain confident it will deliver for students.”
After standing down, Young published a Spectator blog in which he apologised and said the controversy was now a “distraction”.
He had previously said he regrets “politically incorrect” and “sophomoric” comments on social media – including references to the size of women’s breasts – and has deleted up to 40,000 tweets he has posted since 2009.