During Mr Dawson's tenure, Natfhe's membership rose as Margaret Thatcher made cuts in public services and provoked political clashes between government and trade unions.
In his early career, Mr Dawson taught at Chiswick grammar school and held posts in the National Union of Teachers before moving on to the Association of Teachers in Technical Institutions, which evolved into Natfhe.
He was elected general secretary in 1979 - the year Margaret Thatcher became prime minister - but lost the post when legislation was introduced in 1989 which imposed regular elections on union leaders.
While the Thatcher government's policies were widely condemned by unions, they did at least earn Mr Dawson a place in the history books. he was first the professional union leader to lose office under the new rule. He was succeeded by the then president of Natfhe, Geoff Woolf and, in short succession, John Akker.
Mr Dawson played a major part in bringing about a re-evaluation of the further education service in the 1970s and early 1980s and was involved in the development of the "silver book" on lecturers' pay and conditions.
The silver book deal became defunct when colleges gained independence from local authorities in 1993. It is still nostalgically referred to during conference debates, although the union has moved towards a "modernised" pay structure with employers in recent years.
Since leaving Natfhe, where he held a number of posts after losing the leadership, Mr Dawson played an energetic role in international trade unionism.
He served as general secretary of the European Trades Union Committee for Education and then went on to work for Education International - the worldwide education trade union federation.
Paul Mackney, the current general secretary, said: "His stewardship was over a period of growth in the post-school sector which was reflected in a steady growth in Natfhe's membership, bucking the trend of retreat and membership loss experienced across the trade union movement."
Mr Dawson, who died on January 19 after suffering from cancer, leaves a wife, Yvonne, children Alex and Jo-Anne, and three grandchildren. His funeral was held in south-east London on Wednesday.