DURING my year as president of the Association of University Teachers (1996-97) one of my first actions (together with the AUT general secretary) was to meet the then Natfhe general secretary and president in order to initiate a series of meetings (under neutral chairmanship) to try to break the log jam in our relations caused by the ill-starred "Confederation".
The principal problem was that Natfhe always hankered after a "full merger" while AUT sees two financially and politically independent unions (one for higher and one for further education) as the only realistic basis for constructive relationships between the two sectors.
The AUT insists on financial independence because we are financially sound and we have financial controls that guarantee our future. Natfhe balked at agreeing financial convergence criteria.
The AUT insists on political independence because higher education policy must be in the hands of higher education members and those they elect to office. Higher education members have shown overwhelmingly in ballots that they want a pay review body. The Natfhe organisational structure allows a tiny minority to frustrate this aim which I believe is shared by Natfhe members in higher education. If the Natfhe leadership disputes this, why not hold a membership ballot as AUT and the Association of University and College Lecturers did?
The talks made some progress in discussing company businesses which could carry out commercially viable functions of mutual benefit to members of AUT and Natfhe. The process foundered when Natfhe was reluctant to accept that the union for each sector had to retain control over its own finances and its own policies unless there were mutual agreement to do otherwise. This would have been merger under another name.
AUT has made a number of proposals which, if pursued constructively, could lead to mutually beneficial relationships between two financially viable unions in their respective sectors. The Natfhe leadership now has to decide if it wants to resume progress or to retreat into unrealistic talk about merger; a dead end if ever I saw one.
P. K. Burgess Immediate past-president, AUT