A membership war between the two leading trade unions in higher education is set to explode unless a major disagreement over bargaining rights and recognition when smaller institutions merge with traditional universities can be resolved.
The row between the Association of University Teachers and Natfhe erupted because of proposals, going to the AUT executive today, to offer staff transferring from colleges to "old" universities joint membership of the two unions by the end of the year but with the association retaining sole bargaining rights. The AUT says this is consistent with the agreement signed by both unions in May l992 under the aegis of the TUC, prior to the setting up of the AUT/Natfhe confederation.
Joint membership represents only an immediate step to a more fundamental change which the AUT wants to see. In the middle term it wants the creation of a totally independent body both in terms of policy and finance which would operate under the aegis of the confederation and could be linked to a separate FE body.
The crisis, which both unions have failed to resolve within the confederation, stems from the merger of some four institutions: Charlotte Mason, the teacher training college with Lancaster University; the Welsh Agricultural College with the University College of Wales at Aberystwth; Salford College of Technologywith Salford University, and West London Institute with Brunel University. More are in the pipeline.
David Triesman, AUT general secretary said: "This is a good offer. AUT does not want to poach members from Natfhe, although a number of individuals insisted on transferring as is their right have done so. It is only a handful and we do not encourage it."
But Liz Allen, higher education negotiation secretary for Natfhe, said that the way staff at Charlotte Mason have been treated as second class because their main involvement is in teaching rather than research indicates the sort of problems their members can face and which have to be sorted out.
"Basically we want a more radical approach which would offer joint membership to all staff not just those that transfer," she said.