Who would lead the lecturers?

24th October 1997 at 01:00
NATFHE has a reputation for giving its general secretaries a rough ride. Who would want to replace the ousted John Akker? asks Ngaio Crequer.

A shrunken membership, financial worries, doubts about cohabiting with a partner, all this is familiar to NATFHE. So the big question for all the candidates standing for election as general secretary is not why do you want to stand, but why on earth do you want to stand?

The lecturers' union is at a watershed. It will have had four general secretaries in the past seven years. The last three have been thrown out, or were unceremoniously retired.

The annual conference has been cropped in size and length and the number of staff at its Brittania Street headquarters has been trimmed. There is talk of moving out to a new, less expensive base. After the exit of the previous general secretary John Akker, Tessa Blackstone, the new education minister, snubbed NATFHE by refusing to turn up at its conference. Instead she sent a video and members spent the beginning of the session debating whether to watch it.

The word on the street was that if ministers wanted to show they could be tough with the unions, here was an early sacrificial lamb.

In 1989 NATFHE's membership was 81,407. In 1994, it had plummeted to 71, 430. Latest figures for 1997 show a membership of 66,000. It may not be due to loss of faith in the union. Since the incorporation of FE colleges in 1993, it is estimated that 15,000 lecturing posts have been lost through redundancy. More will continue to be lost as efficiency gains are implemented.

The financial situation is not as bleak as some may suggest. The projected deficit for this year is Pounds 170,000 and measures are in hand to reduce it. The union has obviously lost subscriptions through redundancies and increasing casualisation. It describes claims that the union is nearly bankrupt as "ridiculous".

NATFHE has the same problem as the sector it mainly represents - further education. It has a cloak of invisibility and a deep, dark sense of its own helplessness. All the candidates for the general secretaryship are from within the union and some of them have been around a long time. Long enough to know what the problems are, and possibly long enough to have tried to confront them in the past.

In the last election Mr Akker was the only one from outside the union to stand for the post and he got the job - just. But he turned out not to be the person that they wanted and it ended in tears.

Not surprisingly, the theme of leadership of the union stands out in many of the election early soundbites. This ought to be a time of cautious optimism. Ministers, especially the conference shunning Tessa Blackstone, have gone out of their way to stress their interest in and concern for further education. Some of it is believable.

The Kennedy report on widening participation was widely seen, as the author herself put it, as an attempt to mug dons, because of the merest hint that FE should be the receptacle for future, even increased, government funds. If internecine warfare could be removed from NATFHE ranks, just think what the peace could bring.

But the domestic housework problems will have to be sorted. Does the union merge, confederate, or configurate with the Association of University Teachers or any other union. It is still having "constructive talks" with the AUT but inevitably there are divisions within the union between the HE and the FE staff.

One agenda sees an eventual splitting off of the union, with one section going in with Unison and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, and another section going in with the AUT. Keeping everyone on board will certainly require leadership.

Concern about losing so many general secretaries has led the national executive committee to look at the procedure. They have tightened up the job specification to make it clearer. They considered whether they should interview the candidates and then make a recommendation to the members. Or they wondered if the job specification and the person specification should go out with the ballot papers, so members could look at the two together as they marked their cross. In the end they decided to do none of these things and the membership will judge unaided.

With a new government, and new union leadership, and at least the promise of better things to come for FE, this choice could be the most crucial one of all. Now NATFHE has a chance to make things happen.

Nominations for the post closed this week.


ANDREA KENNEALLY was made redundant in July after 14 years as a business administration lecturer at Southwark College in London. She had just returned to work after a strike at the college in which she acted as a negotiator.

She appealed against the decision and won on one substantial point. The college is considering a re-run of the redundancy proceedings. She says: "Either I would be put in the position of being sacked twice, or another person would be sacrificed."

She says: "I am standing for the post of union secretary because the union has failed to fight since incorporation. It has devolved responsibility to local branches. I joined the union for a national policy on conditions and pay. I have visited lots of branches and they all ask: 'Where is the lead from the union?'

"The biggest issue is funding. We have to lobby the Government to ensure we get proper funding for further and higher education. We have to stop the whole attack that has been going on."

VICKY SEDDON led the field during the last election for general secretary only to be pipped at the post by John Akker. She is keen to enter the fray again and is the favourite. She is in her seventh year as honorary treasurer of the union and works in the student services centre of Sheffield Hallam University. She was previously a mathematics and statistics lecturer.

She has had experience as an HE national negotiator.

"I am standing to provide the clear leadership that has been sadly lacking in our union for many years. We need to modernise our union so that it can respond to the realities of life in colleges and universities, and to re-establish our authority to speak for post-school education."

She says she intends to lead a union which: * voices the concerns of lecturing staff; * controls pay and working conditions through bargaining; * challenges the culture of management of colleges by diktat.

She says: "The Government's emphasis on lifelong learning offers new opportunities for a union representing members across adult, further and higher education. Never has there been a more crucial time for creative dialogue between all genuinely committed to post-school education.

A veteran of the Left, FAWZI IBRAHIM has served on the NEC for 18 years, been regional secretary for outer London for 10 years, and lectured in electronics at the College of North West London for 27 years.

He led the negotiating team that in 1994 secured what he describes as one of the best contracts in colleges in the country.

He says: "The main issue is the survival of the union and the need to play a major role in the shaping of post-16 education.

"The future of NATFHE is extremely bleak. We are on the verge of bankruptcy. Unpopular decisions have to be taken and the other candidates are incapable of taking them."

Mr Ibrahim was national treasurer of the union in 1988-89. "We had an overdraft of Pounds 500,000 and in a short period I eliminated it and we had our first balanced budget. It is easy to do."

Another issue he will highlight is the standing of the union. "It is practically non-existent in the trade union movement," he says. "Our public face is bland and unnoticeable. That has to change. We must be noticed. Again I have experience in this area."

KATE HEASMAN has been a member of the Association of Teachers in Technical InstitutionsNATFHE since the mid-Seventies and is one of the longest-serving members of the current national executive committee. She is a former president of the union and attempted to heal rifts.

Her backers say she decided to stand because she believes NATFHE should unite behind a general secretary whose principal concerns are the defence of members' conditions of service, jobs and pay, and lobbying the Government for a suitably resourced funding regime for further and higher education.

She said: "As we near the turn of the century it is clear that further and higher education are at the centre of government policies for economic and social regeneration. A united NATFHE is essential so that we can lobby effectively to ensure that FEand HE are properly resourced to meet the challenge."

Ms Heasman added: "FE is already at meltdown point. That means more and more redundancies and more and more people working in impossible conditions. If people are not being forced out they are definitely trying to get out. We need to get together as much as we can and fight the worst excesses of what is going on."

PAUL MACKNEY has 17 years' experience as an industrial relations practitioner and has an MA in the subject from Warwick University.

Currently NATFHE's West Midlands regional official, he has been extremely effective at the local level, negotiating contract agreements, taking employers to tribunals and exposing "bullying tactics".

He is said to be the only candidate feared by Roger Ward, the Association of Colleges's chief executive.

Mr Mackney says: "There is something wrong at the top. The principal day-to-day purpose of NATFHE's 100 staff should be to provide branch officers with prompt advice and back-up. That clarity of purpose has been lost. NATFHE's employees work very hard, but not always at the right things. Many members and branch officers feel abandoned."

He wants to involve members in a recruitment crusade and federate with other unions such as the Association of University Teachers, the National Union of Teachers and Unison, the public services union, to share common services.

He adds: "It is pointless to base strategy around industrial action we cannot deliver. This year most members felt too exhausted to support laudable national attempts to ballot to force the Association of Colleges to negotiate."

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