Leader: It's time for a 21st-century champion

August 17, 2001

This is the 1,500th edition of The THES . Born of university expansion and the birth of polytechnics, The THES has grown along with the number of institutions and students, charting far-reaching changes in relationships with national and local government and the experience of staff and students.

Relics of the old order remain. The most anomalous is the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education - Natfhe, the union for a local government college sector that ceased to exist almost a decade ago. The anomaly has become greater with the agreement of new unified negotiating machinery for higher education, with Natfhe's universities branch sitting alongside the Association of University Teachers while its more numerous further education members are part of a different bargaining system.

The AUT, too, is looking increasingly anachronistic. Its membership is overwhelmingly among academic and academic-related staff in old universities. Many are committed to notions that some, not least in government, see as somewhat unhelpful - academic freedom; the symbiosis between research and teaching; and a general belief that students should be encouraged to value the life of the mind above the size of the salary. Many AUT members view with dismay the idea of merger with Natfhe, suspecting its members of taking too instrumental a view of higher education and too Trotskyite a political line.

The vacancy at the top of the AUT makes merger a live issue. The AUT constitution would allow the election to be confined to insiders. This would be unwise. An open contest with many candidates and views is needed so underlying issues can be debated. Merger will be one area of controversy, although the key objection - Natfhe's numerical domination by further education members - could be addressed by an appropriate structure for the new union. Other issues must include review of the AUT's campaign for a pay review body; the unions' position on academic contracts, which vary between old and new universities; and the level of personal services unions should offer members.

Above all, the opportunity should be taken for some soul-searching. In the 30 years that The THES has been observing the scene, academic workloads have swollen, incomes have shrunk relative to other professionals and professional autonomy has been eroded. The existing unions have failed to stem the tide. Academics and academic-related staff badly need a strong champion.

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