Effective representation of higher education staff is indeed essential in these challenging times (THES leader, February 16). The central issue in building greater unity is what structures among academic and academic-related staff unions will best maximise resources, avoid duplication and advance all staff's concerns. Natfhe's key priority is to build a unified higher education organisation with the Association of University Teachers.
The AUT may only just have gone public with its long-held views on bargaining rights in a handful of merging institutions but this is not the key issue for higher education staff. Both unions have legal recognition in such institutions and can co-operate well locally. The mechanism proposed by Natfhe in 1993 avoids wasteful competition while the central issue of developing joint structures is addressed.
Unison has the largest number of higher education members but no single organisation dominates. In terms of lecturing grades AUT's and Natfhe's membership is not that dissimilar. Natfhe's higher education membership grew by 1,000 last year so speculation about new universities' staff moving to AUT is merely mischievous.
Natfhe strives to cooperate. We initiated the AUT/Natfhe confederation and have good formal liaison arrangements with Unison and the Educational Institute of Scotland. We have a long tradition of working together on matters of common concern. The connections between further and higher education, increasing cross-sector funding and merger talks reinforce our arguments for a merger with AUT (which, contrary to your leader, would have produced roughly equal further and higher education sections). The AUT/Natfhe confederation was a pragmatic reaction to AUT's rejection of this. We hoped to be able to develop strong further and higher education sectors and integrated confederal machinery to avoid wasteful duplication of work, improve services and strengthen members' collective voice. Now even modest co-operation efforts, for example around this year's pay claim, are not being reciprocated by the AUT. The AUT proposes joint membership of AUT and Natfhe in institutional mergers with one union taking sole bargaining rights. Without integration at other levels this is not a practical concept.
Higher education staff do not welcome public posturing about unity any more than they will welcome a totally unnecessary fight around bargaining rights in a few institutions. They value serious efforts to construct an organisation to further their objectives in the prevailing climate. It would be ironic indeed if AUT's preoccupation with sole bargaining in merging institutions led to an outbreak of disunity.
Ian Clay, president,
Jill Jones, chair, higher education committee, Natfhe