Neil Munro assesses the state of Scotland's smallest further education union on the eve of its annual conference in Edinburgh.
Delegates at the Scottish Further and Higher Education Association's conference in Edinburgh tomorrow (Saturday) will probably be on their best behaviour not to mention the M word.
The association and the Educational Institute of Scotland have announced that they are to "improve links and work more closely together". But Eric Smith, its general secretary, said the move was "nothing like a merger and you mustn't read into it something which is isn't there".
Closer liaison is a recognition that times are hard in FE and staff require to have a united voice as they battle with management and the Scottish Office. "The agreement comes at a particularly important time for the FE sector, " Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the EIS, said. It "reflects the reality of improving relationships between the members of our two unions both within colleges and at a national level".
The aims of the "protocol" signed between the two unions last week are modest. They will respect each other's rights and rules, do nothing to harm the other organisation and encourage members to work in a spirit of "mutual respect and harmony". The leaderships both at college and national levels will meet once a year.
So why not a merger, given similar interests and similar pressures? The SFHEA, it is clear, still prides itself on having an independent voice as well as a united voice. "The association was created because members felt that college interests were being subordinated to those of the schools within the EIS, " Mr Smith said.
The creation of an FE section in the EIS has rather diluted that argument, even if some of the institute's own FE members are unhappy that they are not autonomous enough. Mr Smith said he was not aware of policy differences with the EIS "because I am not aware of all their policies".
He was in no mood to concede that this was a case of a large union coming to the rescue of one with a tiny membership. The EIS has 5,000 members in colleges and universities compared with the SFHEA's 1,500. Mr Smith appears sensitive when pressed to divulge its strength. "We have members in every college in Scotland" was his initial response. He then said he did not know the exact figure before confirming that it is "around 1,500".
The union was certainly an unknown quantity to one of Scotland's top judges earlier this year. "Who are they, the SFHEA?" Lord Morison asked in the Court of Session during the legal battle between the EIS and Campbell Pearson, former principal of Borders College. "A professional association that represents lecturers," he was told. "So they are a kind of trade union, similar to the EIS," his lordship concluded.
The two are indeed so similar that it is difficult to shine a light between them in terms of policy. No one can recall any material differences over the years. "We are probably seen as the more moderate union," David Cleghorn, the outgoing SFHEA president, said.
Mr Cleghorn is a senior lecturer in fabric and welding at Falkirk College, where the union is in the unusual position of being recognised as the sole negotiator after a dust-up between the management and the EIS. This is appropriate since the union was actually born there in 1966.
The SFHEA has historically been strong in only a few places. The former Napier College, where the annual meeting is being held, was a power base for many years but now that it is a university the union is in competition not just with the EIS but with the Association of University Teachers.
Some observers believe the SFHEA will run up against the problem of an ageing membership, and may already be doing so. Mr Cleghorn says recruitment is holding up "at least in Falkirk". The EIS, he points out, has an in-built advantage from its dominant position, not least because many lecturers come to colleges from schools where they will have joined the institute.
But Mr Cleghorn confirms that there is no mood among the member ship for a merger. If any M word is mentioned tomorrow, it is more likely to be membership.