Changing picture entraps unions

May 23, 1997

This is union meeting season, the Association of University Teachers' council last week, Natfhe starting tomorrow and Unison next week. Futher and higher education unions are in a difficult bind.

They face a Labour government which looks set to give them every bit as hard a time as its Conservative predecessor. They will be called on to defend their members against the consequences of an economic policy for which many of those members voted. They lack industrial muscle. The only forms of dramatic action are ones that harm students. Such action is rightly regarded by many staff as unethical and unions, like Natfhe, which call too readily for it end up with falling membership.

The AUT council meeting last week gave a somewhat panicky impression. Jobs are threatened to an extent they have not been through the years of under-funded expansion. The number of redundancies being sought is going up daily. University managers can see very well the spending plans in the pipeline. They have noted the chancellor's committment to stick to overall targets. They know that top-up fees are no longer a feasible solution to short-term difficulties. They know that any changes in funding that may be recommended by the Dearing committee cannot have any real impact on their finances before 1999, even if acted on promptly.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England last week considered the universities' financial forecasts. If the number of institutions in imminent danger has not gone up, then many more need to take action to avoid difficulty.

In these circumstances, pleas from staff to wait for Dearing cut little ice. Whatever changes are coming, two more lean years are certain. Nor is it surprising, though it is alarming, that redundancies are being sought selectively so as to improve universities' research profiles. Better research performance is the best way to extra revenue - on both sides of the dual support system and in the private market. AUT members are rightly concerned that teaching is being downgraded in universities with research ambitions.

The AUT is then understandably miserable. Natfhe, by contrast, is a mess. No wonder its membership is falling while the AUT's is rising even though AUT has abided by Trades Union Congress rules about poaching. Migration of membership can be expected to accelerate. Plans for AUT to merge with the Association of University and College Lecturers have now been approved by both councils. AUCL members will now be balloted and, if they agree, the two will merge in September. This will make the AUT a recognised union in almost every higher education institution.

Meanwhile Natfhe faces a destructive summer. It has lost its general secretary and protected the secrecy of the deal with the kind of gagging clauses which it loudly deplores when used by other managements. It even has the gall to defend such action on the grounds of good management.

Like the Conservative party Natfhe now faces a leadership contest without having adequately reformed its constitution. The union has an over-large executive of 47 on which far-left groups are heavily represented. This body is unwilling to allow its general secretary, elected by the membership, any real scope for leadership. With six members of the executive already in the running for the general secretary's post, a summer of feuding can be expected.

With Natfhe mired in infighting, negotiations for closer working with AUT in the higher education sector are problematic. AUT has little incentive to do anything but sit and wait for the bulk of higher education membership to fall into its hands.

In further education, however, Natfhe is stronger. Its confrontational ways have made management in a cash-strapped sector more difficult and has disrupted the work of colleges to students' cost. The parallel growth of casualisation in colleges has much to do with the need to reduce costs, but it will also have been stimulated by a desire to reduce confrontation by relying on part-time, short-term, freelance staff. The Education Lecturing Services agency (page five)spotted its opportunity.

The trouble is that large-scale use of freelances undermines collegiality. If Natfhe destroys itself it matters little. Others can fill the gap. But if its activities drive colleges into collapse or largely casualised ways of working, students, and the country will be the losers.

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