The creation of a single union for more than 110,000 lecturers came a step closer last week as the AUT agreed plans for closer relations with rival lecturers' union Natfhe.
Delegates at the annual council carried a motion that called for "maximum possible unity" among higher education staff, and acknowledged that new unified pay negotiating structures "remove a substantial barrier to the creation of a single union to represent academic and academic-related staff in higher education".
But delegates backing a motion calling explicitly for a full merger with Natfhe within five years were persuaded to withdraw it after being convinced that imposing a rigid timetable was not helpful when the executive was already trying to move towards a closer relationship with its rival.
The merger debate was held behind closed doors, discussed under the auspices of the strategic planning committee. The union's 2003 strategic plan, approved by council, said that a survey had found that AUT members still "appreciate being part of a higher education-focused union" and that "must be respected".
Some AUT members continue to have long-standing concerns about the potential diminution of their influence if they worked too closely with Natfhe, which has 47,000 of its 67,000 members working in further education colleges, with the remaining 20,000 in post-92 universities. This compares with an AUT membership of 46,000, made up largely of staff in old universities.
But the strategic plan says: "The blurring of the lines between higher education and further education will have a dramatic impact on our ability to maintain that nice higher education union focus. This, allied with the growing pressures on services, makes it essential for the working relationship with Natfhe to be actively developed further."
The motion on relations with Natfhe from Loughborough University's AUT said: "CouncilI welcomes the strengthening of good relations between Natfhe and AUT, especially in the national bargaining sphere. Council affirms that the creation of a single pay spine, a common pay settlement date, and the accompanying negotiating structures established in 2001, remove a substantial barrier to the creation of a single union to represent academic and academic-related staff in higher education. It also affirms that maximum possible unity is required to ensure that staff in higher education have an effective voice."
It mandated the AUT to "further closer working relationships" with Natfhe, but stops short of merger plans.