Education at all levels remains one of the most highly unionised sections of the UK workforce but, as the employers are well aware, the unions'
impact is greatly diminished by the array of organisations involved in any negotiations. The Trades Union Congress is equally conscious of this and has been quietly encouraging its members in schools and higher education to put aside their differences and merge. In schools this has had little effect, but this weekend's Natfhe conference should see further tentative progress.
All mergers provoke anxieties in higher education. In this case, many in the Association of University Teachers would worry that the large further education section of Natfhe might limit the autonomy they enjoy at present.
The industrial action taken by an isolated AUT this spring might never have taken place, for example. But Natfhe's lengthy grappling with these issues in the 1980s produced a near-federal framework designed to prevent one section dominating another. It may be that activists in the old universities would have won over enough of their colleagues elsewhere to enlist wider and more powerful support for their campaign in a "super-union".
Inevitably, there is a danger that too broad a church will accelerate the very trend that both unions are desperate to avoid: the spread of local bargaining. But that will require skilful leadership, rather than a particular structure. At least the new union's leaders would be able to call on a more efficient range of services and administration to satisfy members.
No one should expect the next crucial phase of interunion courtship to be swift. The AUT council's rejection of a five-year merger horizon as too rigid was more telling than the much vaguer goal of achieving "maximum possible unity". Similar motions are passed annually by school-teaching unions without a serious prospect of merger, and the one recent attempt to speed up the process had the opposite effect. However, the fact that the general secretaries of the AUT and Natfhe are so obviously acting in concert gives more cause for optimism in further and higher education.
Personalities and the conflicting interests of individuals have held up the cause of unity at school level. Without such complications, the logic of a single post-school union should see practical form... eventually.