Two unions divided by their similarities

November 13, 1998

Natfhe's problem and AUT's virtue lie in their respective images, says Tom Wilson

Last July I left my office at the Association of University Teachers for the last time. After ten years it was time for a change - from assistant general secretary at the AUT to head of the universities department at the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education. Quite a change. But after just three months what strikes me most is how much the two unions, despite their very different images, have in common.

Of course there are differences. The main one is that Natfhe is simply much bigger. It has 44,000 members in further education, 18,000 in higher education and 65,000 in total, compared with the AUT's 42,000 members, all in higher education. Natfhe's size means that the common services are big and broadly-based. For example, it can afford to employ in-house solicitors, unlike the AUT. Picking their brains without the meter ticking is a big advantage.

But I do miss the AUT's capacity for forensic concentration. Nobody understands the intricacies of the Visitor system better. Few understand better than AUT officials the detail of the charters, statutes and ordinances brought in for the old universities after the 1987 Education Reform Act. I remember well many passionate debates about the precise wording and grammar of policy papers and circulars. Such a scholarly perspective does matter. It derives from the fact that many AUT members are deeply involved in research and its values drive their institutions.

Natfhe papers and circulars may contain more grammatical infelicities, but they have a broader sweep, simply because the union embraces the whole of post-16 education. Its members work in a wider range of institutions, and the social justice role of education in extending opportunity to the disadvantaged is felt just as strongly as the commitment to scholarship and good teaching.

Natfhe also seems to have more meetings with ministers, senior civil servants and advisers than the AUT, which may reflect a perception that Natfhe is more in tune with the government's drive to end social exclusion through the New Deal and Lifelong Learning.

I now realise that there is no sharp distinction between further and higher education. One in seven higher education students is taught in a further education. Many colleges have strong partnerships with universities. Interestingly, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' new corporate plan envisages further breaking down of the barriers.

So the similarities far outweigh the differences. Further and higher education lecturers even dress similarly, united in sartorial indifference. Natfhe's problem and AUT's virtue, it seems to me, lie in their respective images. The famous AUT slogan from its 1970s pay campaign "Rectify the anomaly" seems to sum up its donnish appearance, while Natfhe seems to be continually embroiled in disputes.

But these images are too easy. Before joining Natfhe's staff, I did not fully realise just what its members had been through. Five years ago the further education employers tore up their national agreement on pay and conditions and, spurred on by their new-found independence, many managements attacked their employees' status and job security. Most have seen massive increases in their workload, while widespread use of agencies has undermined employment rights for part-time staff. In the past five years about 18,000 lecturing jobs have been lost.

All this was often shrouded in secrecy, as was highlighted by the Nolan committee, . Accountability became a meaningless word. A series of financial and management scandals, also noted by Nolan, revealed the worst excesses of the kind of maverick, macho management adopted in many colleges. Many Natfhe branches in universities and colleges can be proud of their role in ending the climate of secrecy.

I have no doubt that if AUT members had been faced with this kind of treatment, they would have fought just as vigorously. I am equally certain that the AUT's image would have changed. But Natfhe has worked hard to avoid strikes.

The main lesson of my move is this: do not fall for the spin, look at the reality. AUT and Natfhe are divided largely by preconceptions. Local Natfhe and AUT activists are very similar. Both are motivated by a desire to help colleagues rather than political evangelism. Neither want industrial action except as a last resort. Both know the value of solving problems by the application of common sense.

On the all too rare occasions when the two unions' activists meet, they are often surprised to find they speak the same language after all.

Tom Wilson is head of the universities department at the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education.

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