Sally Hunt is self-deprecating to the extreme when she says she is "very boring". As general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, she will lead 45,000 lecturers from some of the world's most prestigious universities through a period in which, she says, the careers of thousands of academics, and opportunities for millions of students, are at stake.
Her members will be at the forefront of delivering on the prime minister's pledge to ensure that half of under-30s experience higher education by 2010. And they are key to the knowledge-based economy that ministers are determined to cultivate. It is hardly a boring position for the 37-year-old former Nationwide building society staff union official to be in.
What Ms Hunt means by boring is that she is a no-nonsense professional without an academic background and without either the baggage or prejudices of traditional activists. "I am a trade unionist and I want what is best for the members. It is as simple as that."
She is ready for a fundamental rethink of the union's principles and organisation.
"When I started at the AUT in 1995, it was waking up to the fact it is a trade union as opposed to just a professional association," she said. "We are a very well-organised trade union with very specific ends."
But will the fresh approach bring a more militant approach to campaigning? "A trade union is there to protect and enhance its members' terms and conditions and pay," Ms Hunt said. "I am very clear that this is inclusive of industrial action if you need it. But our members go to work to work, not for conflict."
She is certainly ready to take the fight for university funding direct to ministers. "Our members have done all the giving. We have outperformed on any level they would ask us to demonstrate. We cannot do any more than we are (doing) without investment.
"There will be no quiet agreements. If we are not getting what we need in terms of government support, this union's job is to make that very, very public."
But Ms Hunt also said that a great deal of responsibility to prevent strike action lay in the hands of vice-chancellors.
"The issue of pay did come up during the election. But just as important is workload, and there are great concerns about casualisation," she said.
Responsibility for the short-termism damaging lecturers' careers lay "very firmly at the door" of vice-chancellors, she said.
"There are things management can do without going to government and hiding behind funding allocations," she said, citing gender and race discrimination as examples. "Until now, managers have ignored their responsibility even to find out who their staff are. It is not rocket science."
They can also end the culture of casualisation, she said. "Any industry worth its salt has proper forward planning. Without it they are not doing their job in terms of attracting the people they need."
The fresh approach may also bring about a rethink of organisation. When David Triesman, her predecessor, left to become the Labour Party's general secretary, speculation was rife that a merger with rival lecturers' union Natfhe was back on the cards. Ms Hunt is ready for a more positive look at the issue.
"I am very, very keen to make sure that we look at all our working relationships with other unions on the basis of what benefits our membership," she said. "The AUT was seen as an elite within universities, and the unions were seen to be working against each other. I anticipate with pleasure the prospect of working with Paul Mackney (Natfhe's general secretary)."
Letters, page 15
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