AUT election blighted by indifference

March 1, 2002

Apathy seems to be blighting the campaign to elect a new leader of the Association of University Teachers, writes Phil Baty.

John Duffy, one of the three candidates for the £70,000-a-year general-secretary post, said a hustings meeting in Northern Ireland drew just six people.

In Aberdeen this week, about a dozen lecturers turned up to assess the three candidates.

AUT members got their ballot papers and the candidates' formal election addresses this week. They have until March 22 to vote.

Mr Duffy, head of statistics at the University of Birmingham, said the disappointing turn-outs reflected the frustrations of lecturers who - after years of low pay and failed industrial action - no longer believed their union could achieve anything for them.

In his address, Mr Duffy said his priorities were "jobs, workloads and a fair career structure". He said the union must convince members that progress on these issues was possible, and must empower the local associations that form "the backbone of the AUT". He promised to divert resources to the local associations and to cut their red tape.

The AUT's executive-backed "official" candidate, Sally Hunt, has stressed her credentials as the sole professional trade union official in the race. Ms Hunt's election address said: "We must develop high-quality services to meet the increasing demand for legal help, casework support and professional advice.

"I am the only candidate in this election with a proven record of leading a professional union team and delivering services to individual members."

Ms Hunt, an AUT assistant general secretary, said she would "prioritise recruitment and reach out to new members of the profession". Better communication between union officers, local associations and members is on her agenda too.

She said the AUT must "re-establish collective strength on pay". Her desire for a "root-and-branch review" of the union's pay policy could mean the union's abandoning its commitment to a pay-review body. Protecting academic freedom is another priority.

The third candidate, Martin Hughes, a philosophy lecturer at Durham University and a former AUT president, is selling himself on his status as an academic: "General secretaries shouldn't always be career union officials."

Mr Hughes has attacked the AUT executive and its decision to name an official candidate backed by the union's infrastructure. He said: "My experience far excels, in range and depth, the other candidates'. Yet the executive seeks unethically to control this campaign not by force of argument, but by weight of resources."

He has complained that Ms Hunt has been given unfair advantages such as disproportionate space in the AUT's in-house magazine and a campaign team. One of a series of interactive polls on Mr Hughes's election website found that most of the nearly 200 visitors agreed that the candidates were being treated unfairly.

Academic freedom, which Mr Hughes said was threatened by changes to university statutes, is his key campaigning priority.



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