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Final days of the Natfhe kneejerk

Michael Austin bids an ambivalent farewell to the lecturers' union as it prepares for its marriage to the AUTA

It's all retro these days: Marmite is back in fashion, footballers wear knee-length shorts and Sinatra is on the London stage. Nostalgia is the new black. And it's all very reassuring.

It's the same story in further education, where a quick survey shows that in recent years colleges have changed, funding has moved on, and priorities are different. And yet there is one constant, standing out like that flickering beacon held up by the lady in the Grecian robe at the beginning of films made at Columbia studios.

When the winds of change reach gale force, when goalposts are once again uprooted and relocated, and when waste products hit the ventilation system, it has always been a comfort for college managers to know that the lecturers' union Natfhe will still be there.

It is the enduring predictability of the union that makes it so cuddly. The inevitable response to any managerial initiative - "Whatever it is, I'm against it" - gives some people the impression that they must be unreconstructed Marxists (actually, the quote is from Groucho, not Karl).

But they are really rather conservative.

Working as a Natfhe official is a way-marked route to fame and fortune, but not if you stick to the knitting of branch resolutions, regional conferences or even national executives. Whereas some are content to be role models for Kevin Costner, others have moved on and become college principals (there are several high-profile examples), corporate lawyers, or expensive private-sector consultants (lots of these).

Natfhe has a distinguished history of defending the indefensible, of picking the wrong fights, but always with the best and most proper motives: concern that its members be not exploited. If the walls of the head office were draped with battle honours, they would be gloriously embroidered with:new contracts for lecturers; security for part-timers; closing the pay gap with school teachers - the educational equivalents of Mons, Passchendaele and the Somme, reminders of long, drawn-out and indecisive battles in horribly attritional wars.

Natfhe is - or ought to be - in a very strong position to influence further education. Among lecturers, it is not only the union of first resort but the union of overwhelming penetration. By comparison, rival organisations are puny in membership and influence. If you're a lecturer, then you are almost certainly in a union, and the chances are it is Natfhe.

How many other unions can boast the average brainpower of the Natfhe member? Hence the abiding mystery: how come a union with such a bright membership, whose leader is the very model of a modern general secretary, consistently enters into fights that it must know it will lose? In particular, why is the weapon of choice so often a strike?

Surely the historians in the membership can tell the union that strikes are so yesterday, that nationally we have no more now in a year than we used to have in a month. The political scientists can point out that no government is going to give twopence if colleges shut down while the pickets are at the gates demanding more money.

The economists know perfectly well that the private sector will gladly accommodate students and trainees who are displaced by industrial action.

There may even be the odd college principal who secretly welcomes a lecturers' strike because it saves the college money. Yet the membership regularly votes to stage its own Charge of the Light Brigade.

There is, of course, one looming matter which will need all the union's negotiating skills to sort out, as well as the help and support of other unions in the public sector:pensions.

When college staff draw the mental balance-sheet of their lot in life, they have been able to put holidays and pensions into the credit column. Well, holidays are not what they were, whittled away by new contracts. And pensions -which lecturers have significantly funded through compulsory deductions from their meagre salaries - are shadowed by doubts about how much they will be worth, and how old you will have to be to get one.

Natfhe does more, of course, than staff the barricades against the repressive forces of management brutality. There is the union's well-regarded range of goodies for members: insurance, credit cards, vehicle breakdown - these can all be bought more cheaply. But you don't choose a hotel because of the quality of its peanuts.

After months of respectful dalliance, Natfhe is heading up the aisle with the Association of University Teachers, and a new life. No doubt much will change. But a post-merger Natfhe which tries to reconfigure its image will have to change the vocabulary of a lifetime. No more will every rejection be "decisive", every response "robust", and every offer "derisory". And it just won't be Natfhe any more.

Michael Austin is former principal of Accrington and Rossendale college

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