Academic-turned-MP rises to PPS position

March 13, 1998

Meteorology was never Tony McNulty's academic field, but he is happy to tell anybody about clouds and silver linings: "I thought it was the end of the world when I did not get on to the education and employment select committee, but now it looks as though it might have been a good thing."

Instead of joining Margaret Hodge's committee, the 39-year-old Labour MP for Harrow East got a foot on the ladder of government as the new parliamentary private secretary at the Department for Education and Employment. The post makes Mr McNulty one of the first of Labour's vast 1997 intake to win promotion. "There are about seven with private secretary posts," he said.

He might have preferred Commons-watcher Andrew Roth not to have described him as "probably the only MP who can have an orgasm over a white paper on education", however, Mr McNulty happily acknowledges the implied enthusiasm. This was honed as chair of education in Harrow council and as an academic at the University of North London.

He was originally a political scientist. He graduated from Liverpool University and then took a novel methodology-based masters degree at Virginia Polytechnic. "I came back to Britain in 1983 and realised there were not going to be many politics jobs for quite a while. So I got a job in industrial relations research at the Polytechnic of North London," he said.

His career in the 1980s followed a common pattern: "Lurching from one-year researcher posts to a part-time appointment to a six-month research fellowship." In 1986 he was appointed to a lecturership in organisational behaviour, which by 1997 had become a principal lecturership.

Mr McNulty believes teaching has a natural relevance to politics. "Academic rigour and analysis are important. There is nothing better for sharpening your thoughts than having to teach it to others."

Unlike most parliamentary private secretaries, he is not assigned to a specific minister but will work mostly with the team of Baroness Blackstone and Kim Howells.

On the government's higher education policy, he happily toes the party line, though he does admit that as an academic he was not enamoured of the research assessment exercise. "You could say that the Dearing report might have been handled better, but there had to be an immediate response to be fair to everyone concerned."

Mr McNulty is disappointed by the poor case made for tuition fees. Asked at a meeting in Liverpool if he would support the National Union of Students' anti-fees campaign, he said: "I've been going on demonstrations all of my adult life, but I have never been on one in defence of privilege." And he is unswayed by some of the criticisms in the House of Lords. "No one wants to shackle universities' academic freedom: to link that to preventing them from charging top-up fees is spurious nonsense."

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