Activists issue merger war cry

April 22, 2005

A new super-union for post-16 education would replace the vice-chancellors as the voice of universities and colleges, the leader of the Association of University Teachers was due to claim this week.

In what was expected to be a provocative keynote conference speech this week, AUT general secretary Sally Hunt was due to decry "hopelessly divided" university heads, who she argues have failed to offer leadership for the sector.

She will say that the planned merger between the AUT and lecturers' union Natfhe would create an effective lobbying force for the academic community in debates with Downing Street.

"The biggest threat to the future of higher education is that our sector lacks leadership," she was due to say as The Times Higher went to press on the eve of her conference speech.

"They (university heads) are hopelessly divided, and as one set of vice-chancellors goes into No 10, another goes out of No 11. They have failed to speak with one voice and the sector has suffered. On pay, on job security, on access, on the research assessment exercise - on every single issue of importance to our future - they have been found wanting, sleepwalking towards the future rather than seeking to engage with the changes that are taking place.

"The AUT and Natfhe have an opportunity to fill the space vacated by the employers - to lead on behalf of educators and to become known as the voice of the sector. But we won't do that as two unions; mimicking the employers'

own internal divisions. There is a choice between leading and following. In my view, the AUT is ready to lead."

Ms Hunt is backed by a letter in support of merger in today's Times Higher from 35 AUT activists from universities such as Cambridge and Oxford. Ms Hunt was due to pre-empt concerns that the AUT's voice on higher education would be weakened by merger with Natfhe, which is dominated by members in further education colleges.

"There is a growing link between further and higher education. Some 40 per cent of undergraduates now come from further education. Yet further education gets 10 per cent less funding for providing the same courses as schools.

"I believe that how well those further education students are prepared for university is an issue of vital importance to AUT members.

"At the same time 12 per cent of degrees and rising are now awarded in further education. So ensuring that further education has the resources to prepare students well for university has to be in our interests as higher education professionals."

"Staff in higher education and further education have to stand together or we will hang together. The AUT's agenda must be to drive up standards across post-16 education, including in pay and conditions or we risk our members being undercut and academic standards being lowered."

Union activists at the conference are expected to back a call to ask all AUT members to endorse the merger plans as long as Natfhe does the same during its conference next month.

Ms Hunt will also say that the union won't shy away from industrial disputes over pay.

"AUT negotiators are leading the way delivering new pay structures that will provide better salaries from top to bottom," she is due to say. "Our negotiators are reaching agreements that are setting new benchmarks in the sector but progress in some institutions is too slow, and in some the proposals are simply unacceptable."

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