Leader: Nobody can win when there's no real choice

November 2, 2001

The Association of University Teachers needs a new general secretary. Finding the right person calls for a procedure consistent with the criteria of open and fair practice that the AUT is urging on universities in its openness campaign.

But instead, the AUT executive is outdoing the worst university practice by implementing a procedure to restrict choice and perhaps ensure that there is no election for general secretary. The means is the selection of an "official candidate", chosen by a shortlisting panel. This candidate has an advantage over anyone else, and once he or she is chosen, the other candidates are implicitly invited to withdraw. Non-AUT members can only get on the ballot paper by becoming the official candidate - hardly an example of openness.

The use of this mechanism, which is allowed in the rulebook but is not mandatory, suggests an executive that dislikes democracy and distrusts its members. It replaces the search for the best candidate by a hunt for one who matches the executive's prejudices, especially its allergy to a merger with Natfhe, the other big union for academics.

Limiting or abolishing the membership's choice of candidates is no way to find a general secretary who can cope with the huge issues facing higher education. The official candidate system risks producing a leader who is seen as the favourite of a narrow group of committee types with axes to grind.

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