Higher education is at a crossroads and the need for cooperation between trade unions in higher education has never been more pressing. With unions spanning academic and related support staff, a coherent strategy is of major importance.
Clearly a full-scale merger is impractical if unions are unwilling. Therefore powerful organisational links must be forged. Our challenge is to enable members from all involved unions to benefit from our considerable mutual resources.
Lecturers' union Natfhe has 18,500 members in higher education out of a total membership of 71,000 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (it does not organise in Scotland). For many years Natfhe has tried to further closer relations with the Association of University Teachers, which represents academic and related staff in the old universities. Any joint organisation with the AUT, which has about 30,000 academic and related staff, would ideally also include strong links with representatives of academic-related staff in new universities, with Unison, and with academic staff in Scottish new universities (EIS/ULA).
Our proposals for a merger with the AUT have been roundly rejected. The early promise of confederation has not produced the necessary integration.
Natfhe feels that the debate goes beyond the "nuts and bolts" of inter-union relations in a handful of institutions that have merged and where both unions have legal recognition in any case. A more comprehensive consideration of the way forward for all unions is needed to bring together resources and services. Structural changes should focus on higher education, but also recognise the educational links across all post-school education. The difference between further and higher education, and the need for members in each sector to determine their own policy and structures must be reflected in the changes.
Natfhe would support a move towards a single integrated post-school organisation for academic and related staff and recognises there are a number of models including one along federal lines. There is huge potential for the coming together of resources and real economies of scale. Unlike the AUT, Natfhe owns its own headquarters in an area where there are substantial redevelopment plans and where many big educational organisations and trade unions have offices. Natfhe also has major conference facilities that would be of considerable shared benefit.
We also need to take a hard look at our own confederation with the AUT. Confederation has worked in circumstances where both unions have similar policies and objectives. However, it has failed to resolve areas of difference both in policy and organisation. Joint membership agreements and joint membership consultations over policy issues go some way to addressing these differences but Natfhe believes more radical solutions need to be considered seriously, including some pooling of staff resources and expertise, and a political will to make it work.
Natfhe members in new universities and colleges of higher education have borne the brunt of student expansion. To protect staff, Natfhe negotiated a national contract limiting teaching loads, providing time for research and entitlement to annual leave and a range of scholarly activity. This has been supplemented by local agreements. In the different "old universities" industrial relations climate staff are employed on open-ended "flexible" contracts with individuals left to negotiate workload and time off with heads of department. In the past this may have worked to the benefit of staff but cuts in the unit of resources leave staff little protection against overload. Natfhe's aim in any merger is to build on the best contractual practice available.
It is anticipated that mergers will increase as further and higher education funding is cut ever deeper. Again, Natfhe has proposals that it believes will deal with the vital concerns of staff, who will obviously be concerned about their contracts and whether redundancies will result. In a "stakeholder society" we need to consider solutions that meet the needs of the ordinary members.
The announcement of the Dearing inquiry into higher education will herald changes that academic staff must help to shape. All staff are committed to ensuring that their students emerge equipped with knowledge and skills that will maximise their employability and personal fulfilment. But this must no longer be achieved at our expense, and a strong voice from the unions will ensure this.
John Akker is general secretary of the lecturers' union Natfhe.