Plans to form a single trade union for more than 110,000 lecturers could finally be given the go-ahead at next week's annual conference of the Association of University Teachers.
After resisting repeated approaches from rival lecturers' union Natfhe to work towards a merger, the AUT appears closer to dropping its fiercely guarded independence. A motion to be put to its council in Scarborough calls for the AUT to work towards a merger within five years.
"The merger of the AUT and Natfhe is a natural next step, particularly now that we have joint negotiations on pay and conditions," said Nick James, president of Leicester's AUT, which is proposing the merger.
In what is expected to be one of the council's most heated and passionate debates, the union representing academics in old universities will be asked to agree calls for closer relations with Natfhe, which represents lecturers in post-92 universities and further education colleges.
A motion from Loughborough AUT says further links are crucial for strength.
It says: "Council affirms that the maximum possible unity is required to ensure that staff in higher education have an effective voice, particularly in response to the white paper", which has been "utterly rejected" in almost its entirety by the unions.
The Loughborough motion calls for "regular regional AUT/Natfhe communication", but an amendment from Leicester AUT is more explicit.
"Council calls on the executive committee to approach Natfhe with a view to initiating talks aimed at establishing further links... with an eventual target that merger should take place within five years."
Merger plans were rejected by former AUT general secretary David Triesman, and members were concerned that the AUT would be swallowed up by the larger Natfhe. While the AUT has 46,000 members in old universities, Natfhe has 67,000 members - with about 47,000 in colleges and 20,000 in new universities.
But a paper last year by general secretary Sally Hunt, on the union's strategic direction, warns of "urgent" threats to the AUT's power and influence, not least from falling membership.
Tom Wilson, head of universities at Natfhe, said: "Natfhe warmly welcomes the great improvements in our working relations with AUT in the past year or two, and we would happily look forward to discussing ways of working even more closely."
Meanwhile, a separate motion at the conference, proposed by Liverpool AUT, calls on the union to reject the government's expansion plans and to admit that university teaching standards have already fallen over the past 15 to 20 years, as aresult of underfunded university growth.