The TUC voted this week for a Royal Commission on the future of higher education but not without reservations being expressed by Unison, the white collar union.
David Triesman, general secretary of the AUT, who proposed the commission, said that it was necessary to preserve quality in higher education. "The system is chronically underfunded," Mr Triesman told the congress. "Access to higher education is as much about our democracy as our economy. We are 22nd out of 24 OECD countries in the share of national income put in to research investment." He said that a commission could report in about four months as most of the data had already been collected by the National Commission on Education.
No one voted against his call for a Royal Commission to "refurbish" higher education for "the prosperity, dignity and culture" of Britain. But Unison's Alison Shephard said that although the union agreed with his sentiments, it baulked at the idea of a commission. "Unison wonders whether we should rather have the courage of our convictions and be prepared to argue for a properly funded higher education system face to face."
Mr Triesman said that the squeeze on funding was forcing out poorer students: "Erasmus, according to his parish records, was a poor bastard. Isaac Newton came from an impoverished Grantham family. Darwin's father scraped a living as a poor country GP. Those from poor backgrounds can become stars of the future. It is crazy that today they would arrive at university poor and leave even poorer."
It also emerged at the TUC that the European Commission on Human Rights is investigating the Government's tough laws on strike ballots after a submission by lecturers' union Natfhe. The union says it is confident the commission will call Britain to account over its requirement that all trade union members should be named in votes for industrial action.
In a separate move, the International Labour Organisation has asked the Government to explain the landmark judgment against Natfhe at Blackpool and the Fylde College last year, when a ballot was ruled unlawful because individuals were not named.
"These moves show the issue is far from dead," said Natfhe's further education chief negotiator Sue Berryman. "Natfhe was the test case and other unions have subsequently fallen foul of the law. The ILO has asked the Government directly about the case after a complaint by the TUC, which suggests we have also a strong case with the European Commission."
Natfhe told the TUC it was responsible for a fifth of Britain's strike days last year in the dispute over lecturers' contracts.
Jeanette Nelson, further education national negotiator, blamed college employers because of their hostile use of "anti-union" legislation. "Such is the strength of feeling that strikes by Natfhe members accounted for 22 per cent of days lost in 1994 - the highest of any British trade union," she said. "Lecturers have been forced into strike action in defence of decent conditions that allow quality education."
Both Natfhe and AUT supported motions welcoming the Nolan committee's investigation of standards in education, AUT calling for charters for every university guaranteeing academic freedom. But Natfhe wants legislation changing the "self-perpetuating male businessman cliques" governing new universities.
The TUC also agreed a Natfhe amendment calling for training and enterprise councils to be realigned with local education authorities.