Leader: Unity is strength - and credibility

April 22, 2005

Most headlines about this week's council meeting of the Association of University Teachers have concerned the latest call for a boycott of Israeli universities - a proposal debated (and defeated) in almost exactly the same terms last year. But the real significance of the meeting in Eastbourne lies in the debate over the formation of a single lecturers' union to cover further and higher education. Barring unexpectedly strong opposition, the merger with Natfhe should come a crucial step closer.

The Times Higher has supported a merger since before Bill McCall carried out his review of the prospects in 1997; indeed, it has been a logical development at least since the creation of a supposedly unified higher education sector in 1992. For most of the intervening period, however, it has seemed that the time might never be right. Natfhe was too rocky financially and too extreme politically for AUT members. The halfway house of federation got in the way. Different priorities and approaches obscured the unions' shared interests.

That the prize of a single, more powerful union is suddenly within reach is very much to the credit of Sally Hunt and Paul Mackney, the two general secretaries. Otherwise plausible mergers often founder on the egos and self-interest of union leaders and can proceed only when at least one general secretary retires. In this case, leadership of the proposed new union has barely been an issue, and the pair have worked skilfully together to give the best possible chance of success.

The super-union may not become the "voice of the sector" envisaged by Ms Hunt, but it should be a much more effective advocate for academics and administrators. Its size would offer the stability necessary to develop a level of services expected of a modern union. And given a structure that allows for specialist debates, the move to encompass further, higher and adult education in one organisation promises enhanced credibility as well as industrial muscle.

Today's letter from 35 AUT activists, including two from Oxford and Cambridge universities, suggests that the elitist attitudes that formed one obstacle to merger have been overcome. The greater threat may come from more mechanistic objections at next month's Natfhe conference. It must be hoped that they, too, will wither away. Universities and colleges have remained highly unionised in comparison with other walks of life but, without progress, there is no guarantee that they will remain so.

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