A 100,000-strong super-union representing higher and further education lecturers will come a step closer this weekend as the leaders of Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers come together in a public call for unity.
This week, Paul Mackney, Natfhe general secretary, will for the first time share a platform at his union's conference in Blackpool with his AUT counterpart, Sally Hunt, to push forward merger plans. Mr Mackney also spoke at this year's AUT conference.
In his speech to the Natfhe conference, Mr Mackney is expected to mark the union's 100th anniversary with a demand for Natfhe and the AUT to "combine in a new union".
Under his vision, a merged super-union would have two distinct and financially independent wings - for further and higher education - with shared services and administration.
"As long as we have two organisations, there will inevitably be differences of strategy and tactics that the government and employers can exploit," he was expected to say in his address on Saturday. "We cannot afford the luxury of being separate any longer."
In her speech to the conference, Ms Hunt was expected to call on Natfhe delegates to work with AUT to achieve "maximum unity" as the government's lifelong-learning agenda increasingly blurs the higher and further education boundaries.
Moves towards full merger have been given a big boost by the AUT's apparent warming to the idea. At the AUT's 2003 council, a motion calling for a full merger with Natfhe within five years was referred on the grounds that the timetable was too rigid, but a motion calling for "maximum possible unity" was carried.
There have been concerns among the AUT's 49,000 members in old universities that a merged union would be dominated by Natfhe's further education members, who number 47,000 and make up the bulk of Natfhe's 67,000 members.
But a motion at the AUT's conference last month repeated earlier calls for unity with an acknowledgement for the first time that unity between the further and higher education sectors is desirable.
"Changes to further and higher education have brought greater parallels between the two sectors, and government policies for pre-16, further and higher education are interlinked," it said. Ms Hunt was expected to reiterate this.
Meanwhile, Natfhe delegates were due to debate major structural reforms designed to give greater voice to the grassroots members in university branches. The moves could have the effect of softening the union's often hard-line policies.
The executive is backing a plan to give branch members direct representation at the annual policy-making conference instead of delegates chosen by regional councils. The regions have tended to be more politicised and hard-line than the general membership. This was demonstrated most starkly by the regions' recent rejection of the latest pay offer, which was accepted with a large majority after a ballot of members.
Before the conference, Mr Mackney told The Times Higher that it was important to ensure that those in the branches who had to deliver on policy decisions were the ones setting them. "The danger is that people who don't have any obligation to deliver a set policy that is not 'owned' by the people who do, and its difficult for them to deliver."
But the reforms to weaken the voice of the regions will have to go through conference delegates chosen by the regions.
The regions have prepared a robust defence of their position. In a motion to be debated in Blackpool on Saturday, the London Region says: "Any development that may weaken the crucial role of regions would weaken the union as a whole and needs to be opposed. Regions are closer to their members than are any national bodies, they are valuable training grounds for activists and can act when necessary as a balancing force in relation to undemocratic tendencies in the national union structure."
A similar motion from the Southern Region stresses: "Conference believes that regions must continue to have a key role in ensuring democratic representation in the union."
But a motion from Western Region backs the planned reforms. "Conference agrees that regions are no longer fulfilling their proper functions in the affairs of the union and should be abolished in their current form," it says.