Grassroots leaders of the Association of University Teachers support a merger with rival lecturers' union Natfhe, according to a poll by The THES .
But deep cultural divisions along the former binary divide between staff in old universities, represented by the AUT, and those in former polytechnics, represented by Natfhe, remain a barrier to full union.
Merger proposals are top of the AUT's agenda following the departure of general secretary David Triesman to the Labour Party. Speculation over possible candidates for Mr Triesman's job has focused on the merger issue.
Natfhe's leaders have seized on the forthcoming leadership battle as a chance to redouble calls for merger.
Tom Wilson, Natfhe's head of universities, has yet to declare an interest in the post officially, but he is one of the few possible candidates to support merger openly.
But a question remains over whether the leadership contest will be open to non-AUT members. If it is, then Mr Wilson must win the backing of the AUT executive when it meets in late September. The executive is known to be split over merger.
According to The THES poll, ordinary AUT members may be more firmly in favour of merger than the national executive. This would give Mr Wilson, or other candidates standing on a pro-merger ticket, a major fillip.
The THES polled local AUT association leaders. Of 25 responses (42 per cent of the 60 local associations surveyed) from branch presidents, all of whom spoke in a personal capacity, 15 supported merger, compared with five who opposed and five who declined to comment until the issue had been formally discussed within the AUT.
Bob Watt, vice-president of Essex University's AUT, said: "I now believe that merger with Natfhe is the only way forward for the AUT, on the rather old-fashioned principle that 'unity is strength' and merger with a traditionally more militant union may help us fight off the barbarians in government for a little longer."
Nicholas Keep, Birkbeck College, University of London, AUT president, said:
"Too often the AUT has been more interested in furthering the cause of the AUT management class and not its members. If merging with Natfhe will... allow them to concentrate on the members' interest, then I would support it."
Richard Keeble, president at City University, said he was in favour of a merger of all Trades Union Congress-affiliated unions in education.
Others were supportive in principle, but raised concerns. Dave Edgar, president of Stirling University AUT, said that while he was "politically" in favour of a single union for higher education, he would be worried about pre-1992 universities being swallowed up by a larger union, Natfhe, most of whose members are further education lecturers.
Natfhe has 65,000 members, with some 46,000 in further education colleges and the remaining 19,000 higher education members restricted to academic staff in the new universities.
Almost all AUT's 43,000 members are in the old universities. They include academic and academic-related staff such as administrators.
The AUT supports the 1997 McCall proposals for a merged higher education union made up of the AUT and the higher education membership of Natfhe. The union would have a federal relationship with a new further education union comprising Natfhe's further education members. But Natfhe does not want to split its membership.
David Sallinger, AUT president at Leeds University, said "a first step could be the amalgamation of the AUT and the higher education section of Natfhe, perhaps within a joint HE and FE union".
Other cultural differences could cause problems. One AUT branch leader said he saw considerable benefit to merger with Natfhe but he predicted opposition from the more elitist colleges.
Another respondent, who was formally a Natfhe branch chair, said that Natfhe was overly concerned with further education issues and interests and "tended to neglect" its higher education membership.
David Hitchin, president of the AUT at Sussex University, said there were too many policy differences to seriously consider merger. The AUT supports pay review, while Natfhe does not. The AUT has attacked the Institute for Learning and Teaching, while Natfhe remains largely supportive.
"But in my view, the biggest obstacle to overcome is the fact that the majority of Natfhe members are from the further education sector," he said.
Valarie Soar, a senior administrator at the University of London's Senate House and vice-president of its AUT association, said that she opposed a merger: "As far as I am aware, Natfhe is reluctant to recognise non-academic staff (whether administrative, library or computer) in their union. I couldn't support a merger with a union that wouldn't recognise me as a member."