The Association of University Teachers today publishes its proposals for joint membership with the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education. It wants "open discussion at the grass roots", and hopes thereby to break out of the acrimonious wrangling that has marked recent merger negotiations, and move towards the formation of a single higher education organisation.
The AUT's move arises from frustration. The proposals are not new. They have been with Natfhe since last autumn but no progress has been made. Meanwhile the rows continue with the AUT claiming sole negotiating rights for all academic and related staff in mergers with an old university and Natfhe seeking to recruit additional members and draw a chair up to the table.
Natfhe sees the AUT's proposals as extremely hostile, designed to poach its higher education members and eventually relegate the union to further education. It has spent a miserable week trying to decide how to react to the AUT going public. In higher education Natfhe with 18,500 members is by far the junior partner to the AUT with 30,000 members.
The case for a single voice is strong. The damage done in the schools sector by the presence of competing unions suggests that no one's, not even employers', interests are served by the presence of competing unions.
In theory perhaps a single union embracing the post-compulsory sector would be best. There is a considerable overlap between further and higher education institutions and the line can be expected to blur further as mergers gather pace. This is something to which Natfhe, represented in both sectors, understandably aspired and after which it still hankers.
It was never, however, a practical possibility. The AUT, based exclusively in higher education, is opposed and the idea was dropped two years ago in favour of confederation. The AUT has become no keener since.
Any single union would be dominated by the larger further education sector. Some university academic staff are already anxious about the devaluation of traditional academic values in today's expanded higher education system. That anxiety would be greatly increased if they were to be represented by a union a majority of whose members were in further education. Furthermore there are strands of militancy within Natfhe, particularly in the further education sector, with which many in old universities would not want to be associated.
Having further and higher education divisions within one union would not be seen to provide enough protection for "old" university staff now represented by AUT - not least because they enjoy one great advantage, membership of the Universities Superannuation Scheme, which everyone else would like to share and which employers could not, in present circumstances, possible afford to extend.
While there are some conditions negotiated by Natfhe in higher education which look better than the vague contracts common in old universities concerning teaching load, annual holidays, intellectual property and research time, these would not be attractive enough for anyone to be willing to trade them in for any levelling-down of pensions arrangements.
The best Natfhe can hope for is the kind of joint membership arrangement already in place in other organisations such as the Royal College of Nursing. This would leave it as the sole negotiator for further education but would see the AUT dominating a growing part of higher education as mergers proceed. In the medium term it might be expected that most academics in new universities would move to AUT.
This may be a bitter pill for Natfhe to swallow, but the sooner a single voice emerges the better. Academic and academic related staff are in dire need of effective representation.