Annual returns to the Certification Office for Trade Unions and Employers' Associations show that membership throughout Great Britain has dropped below the critical 70,000 mark as redundancies continue to bite. In the two years since incorporation numbers have fallen by 10 per cent.
There has been pressure within some quarters of the union's FE sector for a rule change to widen membership. Many will see the move as the union suspending long-held prejudices.
But the rule change - to be considered at the special one-day conference on December 16 - also signals the blurring of the lines between private and public provision since incorporation and the 1993 Further and Higher Education Act.
The change is necessary to allow members who are now self-employed and working through agencies such as Education Lecturing Services to remain NATFHE members. A spokeswoman for NATFHE said: "A rule change is necessary to reflect the changing nature of the sector."
This would effectively open the door to members within private colleges, many of whom have moved into their jobs after being made redundant in the public sector.
There are more than 400 colleges in the private sector which cover everything from secretarial and insurance studies to distance learning through correspondence and residential services for students with learning difficulties and disabilities. They are estimated to have around 40,000 lecturers and tutors, although they would not all qualify for membership under a rule change.
Many of the 92 FE institutions in membership of the British Accreditation Council for Independent FHE - which has tight membership rules and inspection demands - receive some public funding from bodies including the Further Education Funding Council, through links with colleges formerly controlled by local authorities.
Officials in NATFHE have already signalled an urgent need to cut costs as the union faces a possible deficit of Pounds 1m. The special conference will look at a range of options including a biennial conference, with fewer delegates, and a slimmed-down executive.
Official annual returns show NATFHE's membership at the end of last year stood at 69,422. It tops the 70,000 mark if members in Northern Ireland are included. Since then, redundancies have continued. The union's own recent survey showed that an estimated 1,500 redundancies were made in the last academic year. More are predicted this year.