From education to employment

The ‘dynamic nucleus’ of union learning

In Baroness Sharp’s interim report of the Independent Commission on Colleges in their Communities, the vision is that colleges should be the “dynamic nucleus” of their communities, forging relationships with schools, Sure Start centres, youth offender centres, employers, universities, community organisations and housing associations.

As a member of the commission, I entirely support this college role – which would also of course include unions.

TUC Education, which trains 60,000 union reps and officers annually, is integral to the FE landscape. It works with more than 60 college providers and a range of other partners that include sector skills councils, awarding bodies and unions. Ofsted inspectors have awarded Grade 1 ratings to every one of the TU Education centres in colleges.

Plus, more than 11,000 FE college students in the past year took up courses through the union learning route. Likewise, almost 5,000 learners were involved in HE programmes via Union Learning Fund (ULF) projects. As Baroness Sharp’s report shows, two-thirds of large employers who train their staff do so through a college; 41 per cent per cent of all vocational qualifications are awarded via colleges and half of all foundation degree students are taught in colleges. And it is unions – helped by Unionlearn and often through learning agreements with employers – who are the main drivers of work-related education. Union Learning Reps often help employers get to know their local college.

As the commission, led by NIACE, the Association of Colleges and 157 Group, makes a call for a second round of evidence, it is worth emphasising the unique role that unions have in reaching those in the community who are often the hardest to involve in education and training. A third of our ULF projects target disadvantaged and ethnic minority groups to support them in learning. We are working with our member unions to try and end the gender imbalance within apprenticeships, which has lead to a 21 per cent pay gap between male and female apprentices. Some sectors, usually the best paid such as engineering, have very little take-up by young women.

Unionlearn is brokering protocols such as the one with Stephenson College in Leicestershire. Here, unions and local employers are working with the college to support the development of workplace learning and the development of apprenticeships, as well as helping young people enter the world of work. If colleges are to respond to their communities and provide their students with the skills for the local economy, they need to be creating such partnerships.

The inquiry is looking at how colleges could use new freedoms, such as 3 year funding, to respond to the needs of their local community and employers. Coupled with the Higher Education White Paper, now in consultation, this means colleges having to plan for a radically new landscape. On the one hand their role is being opened up to respond to community (or regional/national) skill needs. On the other, they are grappling with the consequences of new funding arrangements for institutions and individuals. There is simply less state money and more reliance on customers (employers and individuals) paying fees.

Unions can help, for example at HE level we have launched the Higher Learning at Work website This is aimed at learners, union reps, workplace mentors, tutors, assessors and personnel staff. It provides advice on the different routes and pathways to higher-level learning. The size of tuition fees and the apparent aim of the government to see FE colleges providing more HE courses to adults in the community, means that adults need a way to negotiate the choices and options open. Unionlearn is also agreeing deals and discounts with a range of universities, colleges and learning providers for union members, such as the 10% off for union members at the Open University. Colleges can do the same.

To contribute to the inquiry, please email [email protected]

Tom Wilson is director of unionlearn, the TUC’s learning and skills organisation

Read other FE News articles by Tom Wilson:

Investigating the pay and employment conditions of apprentices

Why workplace learning can be the best learning

Welcoming Adult Learners’ Week

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