Size is not everything

August 10, 2001

A merged AUT-Natfhe would be big, but it might lack coherence, argues Philip Burgess.

A single union for higher education is one thing, but a merger between the Association of University Teachers and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education is quite another. Let us not over-simplify and personalise serious issues.

First, I wish David Triesman well in his new job. He was a champion of higher education, but it is perverse to imply that he was an obstacle to a merger that was widely desired. He was instrumental in the merger between the AUT and the Association of University and College Lecturers because this was widely desired and made sense. No one has ever won election to any office in the AUT on the platform of a merger with Natfhe, because the members do not desire it and it would not make sense.

Second, it is wrong to say that the AUT's mission is not clear because it represents staff in a wide range of institutions without covering the profession comprehensively. The AUT represents academic and related staff - forget them at your peril - in the whole higher education sector throughout the United Kingdom. Natfhe, by and large, does not, and appears not to aspire to do so.

Third, a bird with two "independent wings" will never fly straight, if at all. Size is desirable, coherence more so. The financial and political independence of a single higher education union cannot be fudged. If higher and further education organisations are truly independent, then there cannot be a truly merged union. If they are notindependent-andare inevitably dominated by further education - then the appropriate metaphor is a pantomime horse. Past discussions on merger have foundered on this issue.

Fourth, the political differences between the AUT and Natfhe should not be fudged. For example, the AUT desires a pay-review body, remains unconvinced of the value of the Institute for Learning and Teaching, rejects the management-centred casualisation proposals of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association and has, in the wake of the last flawed salary dispute, drawn up sensible rules for the initiation of industrial action that make the views of the members paramount.

Would the adoption of Natfhe's position on these or any other issues on which the unions differ serve AUT members better? Would Natfhe be prepared to accept these AUT positions? Would they begin by allowing their members to express their views on pay review in a ballot? All of these issues must be decided by the members, who are the unions. They are not recruitment-fodder in an empire-building exercise. The first task of the national executive, under the national rules, is to resolve how to apply those rules to elect a new general secretary. Once that has been done, we must tell the members what the procedures are going to be and allow all potential candidates to compete on a level playing field. Some candidates may favour merger, others will not. The members must decide.

Finally, I hope that we are not going to see a re-emergence of the argument that candidates opposed to merger are "sectarian". Support for a coherent higher education union, covering all grades in all institutions in the UK, and mindful of the special features of higher education, in constructive cooperation with other educational unions, has always been AUT policy and is not sectarian.

The next general secretary will have real problems to tackle. Transforming the salary machinery into a stable review process that delivers proper salaries without the need for endless threats of industrial action is one. Addressing spiralling workloads and stress is another. Do the members want our leadership to be distracted from these issues by endless wrangling over mergers? This is a recipe for paralysis, not progress.

Philip Burgess is a lecturer in the department of psychology at Dundee University and a former AUT president. This is his personal view and does not represent the views of the AUT.

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