A merger between Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers is closer than anyone thinks, according to Ted Murphy, national assistant secretary of the Australian National Tertiary Education Union.
Mr Murphy who was at the AUT conference the week before offered Natfhe this assessment: "In the AUT, for all the differences, there are people who are committed to amalgamation, just as people here are."
He believes that one union for higher and further education makes sense, in Britain as in Australia.
In Australia amalgamation talks started in 1987, when there were three unions - one for university teachers, one for college teachers, and one for support staff in both sorts of institution. By 1993 they were all together in the National Tertiary Education Union.
"Within two years of our merger most of the differences between the unions had gone" he says. He urged Natfhe not to mistake negotiating positions for real differences. "The biggest problem is to avoid demonising the other union. You have to look beyond the negotiating position of the two unions to their real position.
Mr Murphy's enthusiasm for a merger was shared by most delegates at the conference. "How do we get better funding?" asked vice president elect Alan John rhetorically. "By having unity of purpose. We aim to have one union by the year 2000. We have a strong general secretary, strong finances, and, however painful it was to get there, two autonomous groups."
The two groups, for higher education and for further education, now have separate conferences and policies in their own areas. One of the main purposes of this is to remove a potential barrier to merger with the AUT, whose university members may feel they are having their decisions made for them by FE lecturers.
President elect Moira Carr said: "Two years ago we took the decision to pursue federation or merger. The principle was to have a single organisation, and within that there should be political and financial independence for higher education. So we started to sectionalise and increase autonomy, and HE can increase the relationship with the AUT." She claimed the AUT response had been to suggest transfer of HE members to the AUT, but "AUT members are now putting presssure on their executive to meet us half way."
The two unions, she said, now had the help of an experienced trade union negotiator to act as an independent chairman for the talks. This was Bill McCall, former general secretary of a civil service trade union. His report is due next month. She pledged: "There will be no severance between FE and HE."
Mistrust of its leadership is a Natfhe tradition, and Liz Lawrence of Sheffield Hallam University demanded further pledges: "No secret deals or tacit understandings, no secret promises of changes to the rule book. Ordinary members must have the opportunity to discuss these matters."