Two wings are better than one

August 17, 2001

A single lecturers' union is appealing, says Tom Wilson, but there is a lot more to it than a simple merger.

Ask almost any member of the Association of University Teachers and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education and they will say their priorities are decent pay and a reasonable workload.

Would these unions stand more chance of achieving those aims if they were to work together? Ask almost anyone in government or the media and they will say a single HE union would be far more effective. Are they right?

First, the AUT policy is determined by the AUT executive and council, not its general secretary. It is only sensible to use the occasion of David Triesman's departure to take stock, but there is more to it than personalities. Second, both unions are highly effective now.

The question of merger or closer cooperation is complex, with arguments on both sides. The AUT and Natfhe have policies in favour of a single union - the problem is what kind of union.

Natfhe has 67,000 members, 19,000 of whom are in HE - all academics. The AUT has 43,000 members, all in HE, a quarter of whom are in academic-related posts. Many in the AUT would like to see a single 62,000-strong, purely HE organisation, comprising their and Natfhe's members. Many in Natfhe are less keen on this model and would prefer a single 110,000-strong post-16 union with autonomous and independent FE and HE wings.

Undeniably, a larger single HE union would have greater clout. It would give members a stronger negotiating voice, enable pooling of resources, provide economies of scale, allow more personalised services to cater for growing diversity, combine the unions' differing strengths, end divisive competition, allow more investment in technology and help build a modern dynamic trade union.

In pay bargaining, the unified negotiating structure means the unions must work more closely anyway. All HE staff will be on the same pay spine and scales and sit round the same table - a strong argument for greater unity.

But there are difficulties. One is that Natfhe has been seen in the past as more leftwing, dominated by FE and less financially stable than the AUT. But that perception is fading. Former Conservative higher education minister Tim Boswell recently described Natfhe as "entirely moderate and reasonable". Natfhe membership is steadily growing, up by almost 10 per cent in the past three years and finances are now healthy. A merged HE wing would be much larger than the FE wing (62,000 to 48,000), but would it have the AUT's degree of independence?

One model might be analogous to the United Kingdom's position in the European Union - a confederation of all the UK teacher unions with autonomous wings for primary, secondary, FE and HE. Indeed, the AUT's links with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which have not compromised AUT independence, could be seen as a step in this direction.

Another problem is the different pay status of academic-related staff, who form a large and active section within the AUT. However, this will be solved once unified pay scales are agreed. Other differences are more complementary: Natfhe has many part-time teaching members and the AUT many contract researchers.

Although AUT and Natfhe members usually get on in institutions where they co-exist, there are some where old enmities have not died and neither side might look too kindly on a marriage. But the key question is, would substantial change be well enough managed to deliver benefits?

None of those problems is insuperable - though they do suggest that a simple merger is not the answer. Some form of united organisation, with autonomous wings (FE and HE) is worth striving for. Any change would have to be carefully and widely discussed. Like joining the euro, both unions should ensure that a new structure could demonstrably be measured against key tests. But the advantages are immense - not least, an independent HE sector delivering teaching and research of which fairly paid members with decent contracts can be proud.

Tom Wilson is head of universities for Natfhe and has worked for the AUT.

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