Last month I found myself in a crowded room at the TUC, bidding an emotional farewell to Liz Smith the previous Director of unionlearn. Over 200 people had gathered to cheer Liz into a richly deserved retirement.
Following her as the new director will be quite some challenge but it’s a challenge I relish. Unions and learning are in my blood. My first ever paid union job was as a WEA lecturer, teaching a 10 week evening class on Psychology to a dozen shop stewards from the Reliant Robin factory in Tamworth, Staffs. Most weeks we had wives, husbands and friends along too – all crowded into a room above a pub.
Then I taught the TUC standard and advanced Health and Safety course at Solihull Tech College, which was actually the converted mansion of Mr Bird of the eponymous Custard powder, a good introduction to the world of FE. That was while moonlighting from a Postgraduate Industrial Relations course at Warwick University. Over the years since then I have worked for unions like GMB, for AUT, and for NATFHE; not very successfully defending the pay and conditions of Lecturers, Researchers, and Support staff in Higher and Further Education.
So now running unionlearn is a privilege. It is the biggest and best union learning organisation in the world. Training 58,000 reps a year and with three million website hits a month it brought learning to over a quarter of a million union members last year - in everything from literacy and numeracy to management and higher level learning. All for £30million a year, which in turn levers in a hundred times more from employers and unions.
The vast majority of commentators in the educational world, not just Labour or union supporters, are equally enthusiastic about union learning. Richard Lambert, head of the employers’ organisation the CBI said: "I'd like to pay tribute to those many union learning reps who do great work up and down the land in helping their colleagues to gain new skills and experiences." When he was shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, Alan Duncan said: "The workplace training programmes initiated by the unions are very impressive."
That view has been echoed by current shadow education ministers David Willets and John Hayes; by Lib Dems and by Plaid Cymru in Wales and the ruling SNP in Scotland. It has also been endorsed by leading employers such as British Aerospace, Arriva, Nissan, BT, Tesco, British Airways and hundreds more.
So it was disappointing to read journalist Edward Heathcoat-Amory claiming in the Daily Mail last month that the Union Learning Fund (ULF) was a £40million quango which funds union leaders pet projects so they in turn bankroll the Labour Party. Wrong on every count. The ULF gets £15million a year, it funds learning projects which are independently assessed, rigorously checked and warmly supported by employers because they help build the skills Britain needs. So all the money goes to improving the skills of Britain’s workers. It’s deliberately misleading to suggest that any of the ULF is recycled to the Labour Party.
Like the Open University, we want to see unionlearn grow to become a permanent and vital part of the learning landscape. It has a powerful case, with strong employer backing, to make to whichever party (or parties) form the next Government. Investing in the skills Britain needs, through union learning, makes sense.
Tom Wilson is the director of unionlearn, which helps unions encourage lifelong learning among members
Read FE News articles by former unionlearn director Liz Smith: