NATFHE chief John Akker is to take legal advice on challenging the union procedures which led to his sudden suspension amid claims of incompetence.
Union insiders say that former general secretary Mr Akker is seeking legal opinion about events which led to his suspension last week. Mr Akker has since signed an early retirement deal, including a clause which prevents him speaking publicly on the issue.
However, well-placed sources say that, despite his decision to accept early retirement, Mr Akker intends to seek counsel's opinion and may refer his case to the Commissioner for the Rights of Trade Union Members.
The commissioner offers legal assistance to union members where their union may have breached its own rules. The body can assist in preparing legal proceedings.
Higher education minister Baroness Blackstone has cancelled her scheduled attendance at Natfhe's annual conference in Scarborough tomorrow. The baroness will instead deliver her speech by video link.
It is understood that, while the official reason was a diary clash, the minister may have decided to pull out after complaints to the Trade Union Congress general council about Natfhe's treatment of Mr Akker.
Mr Akker was suspended from his Pounds 58,000-a-year job after a sub-committee of the national executive passed a vote of no confidence in him. He was suspended pending an investigation into claims that he failed to carry out certain tasks. The union has also signed a confidentiality clause.
Natfhe has appointed full-time officer Derek Betts as "senior official", effectively a caretaker general secretary.
Mr Betts, until now head of policy, said that the national executive would look at the election procedures for the general secretary's post. No timetable has been set but it will be advertised. It is unclear whether the executive will back a preferred candidate.
The union may also undertake a major restructuring programme between now and the election. A motion calling for a "fundamental review" of Natfhe's organisation will go to the conference.
The secrecy surrounding Mr Akker's early retirement has angered many in the union.
Tom Jolliffe, a member of the national executive for 11 years, said: "We cannot argue for openness and accountability at the Nolan committee and then operate the very practices in our own organisation which we condemn."
Roger Ward, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "It is a classic case of Natfhe duplicity over gagging clauses."
Trade unions, page 5