A merger between the two main lecturers' unions was back on the agenda this week after the Association of University Teachers lost its general secretary, David Triesman, to the Labour Party.
Natfhe general secretary Paul Mackney said Mr Triesman's appointment as general secretary of the Labour Party "reopens the possibilities to re-examine the prospect of a single higher education union". There was speculation that Tom Wilson, Natfhe's head of universities, would put himself forward for the AUT job with a merger campaign.
Mr Wilson refused to confirm or deny his interest in the post, but he reiterated Natfhe's desire for a merger and was given a thinly-veiled campaign endorsement by Mr Mackney. He said Mr Wilson had "laid the foundations for a new era of collective bargaining in higher education", following negotiations with employers this year.
Mr Wilson is a former assistant general secretary of the AUT. His candidacy would have to be endorsed by the AUT's 30-member national executive committee. Some AUT members have been angered by his vociferous campaigning for new universities that often led to attacks on the privileges of the elite old universities.
Other candidates could also put the merger issue back on the agenda. Potential candidates include AUT president-elect Natalie Fenton, who is seen as "non-sectarian", and Penny Holloway, the AUT's executive member with a seat on the Trades Union Congress.
Mr Mackney spent most of 1998 in talks with Mr Triesman about a merger. This week, he tried to allay AUT members' fears that a merger with Natfhe, which has most of its 67,000 members in further education, would amount to a takeover or would lead to cross-subsidy between further and higher education. He stressed that there would be two independent wings of any single union.
Mr Mackney also tried to dispel earlier fears about Natfhe's financial position. "In 1998, Natfhe was not as attractive a prospect for partnership. But our status has radically changed - we are financially sound, with outright ownership of our building in King's Cross, and our membership is rising faster than it has for 15 years."
Mr Triesman's appointment to the top job in the Labour Party has raised hopes of a higher profile for higher education issues. He was coming to the end of his second term as AUT general secretary, after eight years in the post.