Break down the union barriers

January 23, 1998

Six years after the creation of the new universities distinctions are blurring. They teach as well as old universities - especially if allowance is made for their bigger classes and different students. They are attractive to potential students. They do worthwhile research, if on a limited scale. But one piece of the jigsaw is missing. While the heads of the new universities are comfortably ensconced in the Committee of Vice-Chancellors, their academic staff remain a race apart, members of Natfhe, the union for the staff of a local authority sector that no longer exists.

If Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers were good at enhancing their members' terms and conditions of employment this would not matter. But the success of British higher education, a magnet for students from the United Kingdom and around the world, has been bought at the expense of the staff. Financially and in other employment conditions, they have fallen behind other professional groups. We report this week (page 1) that union members are increasingly reluctant to fund the sector's success via low pay, poor job security and too much stress. But the existence of several unions for higher education staff cannot help their negotiating position.

The arrival of a new general secretary at Natfhe, Paul Mackney, offers a chance to create a union capable of turning its members' skills into money. Mackney sees the necessity for movement, and has even offered to take second place to David Triesman, AUT general secretary, to bring it about. The AUT's absorption of the Association of University and College Lecturers, a smaller union in the new university sector, provides the necessary goad since the AUT can now recruit across the board.

The barriers to change are formidable. One is in Scotland where the Educational Institute of Scotland, analogous to Natfhe in England and Wales, sees no need for change. Another, more serious, is resistance among many members of both unions. Both Natfhe and the AUT will need unanimity at the top if members are to be persuaded to back change.

More problematic still is the position in further education. Here there are problem institutions aplenty, and managers whose behaviour makes the case for union membership better than Natfhe ever could. If Natfhe and the AUT were to form a single body, its officials could spend most of their time on further education, neglecting members in universities.

The federal structure envisaged by Mackney would not solve this problem. But division by sector would also have problems when lifelong learning and convergence of further and higher education are on the agenda. Natfhe's members in further education are unlikely to vote for separation from colleagues in universities and higher education colleges.

Much urgent discussion is going to be needed. It will need to cover not only Natfhe/AUT relations but also those with other professional unions such as IPMS and MSF. Discussion will doubtless be lively. But it should not be protracted. With another unpromising pay settlement threatening and a pay review about to start, it will not be in anyone's interest to indulge in internal wrangling for long.

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