Frances O’Grady, General Secretary, TUC

#SaveUnionLearning - Union Learning Fund is a vital national asset for UK plans to #BuildBackBetter, @Tesco, @HeathrowAirport, @TataSteelLtd and @ArlaFoodsUK among major employers raising concerns 

The TUC is today (Monday) launching a new campaign, Save Union Learning, to persuade the government to drop proposals to end the Union Learning Fund (ULF).

Unions were told of the proposal to scrap the £12 million annual fund in a letter from the Department for Education.

The TUC says it was ”stunned” to receive the letter as there had been no prior discussion or consultation on the future of the fund, it is achieving its targets, is supported by employers, and it provides a net gain to the Exchequer.

The letter arrived just days after the Prime Minister gave a speech on the importance of skills in the government’s plans to ‘build back better’ (29 September).

He promised a Lifetime Skills Guarantee, and to “give people of all ages the means and the confidence to switch and get the skills they need”.

Support for Save Union Learning

The campaign is launched with backing from employers, unions and education and training organisations.

Major employers supporting the campaign include Tesco, Heathrow, Tata Steel and Arla Foods.

The campaign has the backing of Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the RSA, who chaired the government’s Review of Modern Employment, which reported in 2017.

It is also backed by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and other lifelong learning experts, including the Workers Educational Association and the Learning and Work Institute.

Union learning – a success story

The Union Learning Fund was set up in 1998 and has been supported by governments of all parties. It increases access to learning and training in workplaces, brokered by unions. In 2019-20, it supported 200,000 learners – both union members and non-members.

These learners undertake a wide range of learning and training related to work, including basic literacy and numeracy, ICT skills, ESOL, apprenticeships and traineeships, vocational training, and ongoing professional development.

Union learning gets working people into skills training they would not otherwise have access to. That’s because union learning reps are trusted by their colleagues and by employers. And all union learning is directly relevant to the workplace, tailored to workers and supported by government funding.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:

“Union learning has helped millions of working people improve their skills and progress at work in the last 20 years.

“From basic skills and helping people learn English, to retraining for the jobs of the future, union learning transforms lives. And it’s the Heineken of adult learning – it gets to people other approaches cannot reach.

“Every year we hear from workers who couldn’t read confidently before union learning came into their life. Now they not only read their work emails, they can finally read their children a bedtime story.

“The Prime Minister has been clear on the importance of improving skills to rebuilding the economy. Union learning is a national asset and a vital plank of building back better. The Prime Minister must reject this proposal.”

Paula Stannett, Heathrow Airport’s Chief People Officer, said:

“The announcement that funding support for the Union Learning Fund is to be ended is as disappointing as it is perplexing.

"The unprecedented impact that this pandemic is having on jobs across the UK means there has never been a more critical time to invest in upskilling.

"We urge the Government to rethink its decision.”

Chris Jaques, HR Director, Tata Steel, said:

“Tata Steel has always been a great advocate of developing the skills and competencies of its people throughout their careers in the company. The support of steel industry Trades Union partners and in particular the Union Learning Fund has, for many years, provided a fantastic additional resource.

"This brilliant initiative allows us jointly to raise the capability of our workforce resulting in a more effective and productive organisation and also identify where it can be used to further enhance their skills and competencies. The loss of the Union Learning Fund would certainly be detrimental to achieving the pace of change and future workforce skills to which our industry aspires.”

Peter Cheese May2020 100x100Peter Cheese, Chief Executive, CIPD said:

"Workplace training is critical for individuals and organisations to support growth and productivity, yet UK business has been falling behind. The Union Learning Fund has played an important role and has demonstrated its success at reaching organisations and individuals who would not otherwise have engaged in learning.

"It has never been more important to ensure that we are investing in the skills and capabilities of our workforce, and this fund should continue to be supported to play its part in this vital agenda."

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive, RSA, said:

“Lifelong learning has a key role to play in helping us close the UK’s productivity gap with our competitors. Workplace learning is a big part of this – and union learning has proven to be brilliantly effective. It’s a unique way of switching people onto learning that cannot be replaced. It depends on the trust and support of a workmate who has been trained as a specialist learning rep.

"If the funding goes it will be a tremendous loss, harming business and the economy just when training and skills are needed for our economic recovery.”

Simon Parkinson, Chief Executive, Workers Educational Association, said:

“We were surprised and disappointed to hear that the Union Learning Fund could be cut. With so many at risk of redundancy and increasing competition for any new jobs, adult education provides a lifeline for those seeking to gain skills that could help them keep a secure foothold in the labour market. Far from cutting programmes which support workplace skills, this is the time to invest more in them. 

"The Union Learning Fund has made a significant contribution to the nation’s productivity for many years and the evidence shows it is good value for money. The WEA has been proud to be part of the Bridges to Learning programme, in partnership with the Union Learning Fund, which has helped thousands to take up work-related training. We believe that programmes such as this are central to the economic recovery.”

Stephen Evans Dec 2018 100x100Stephen Evans, Chief Executive of Learning and Work Institute, said:

"Independent evaluations have shown that the Union Learning Fund delivers real value not just for workers, but for employers and the economy as a whole. It is particularly effective at reaching workers with lower levels of qualifications – workers who can really benefit from learning opportunities, but who are currently least likely to take part.

"At a time of rapid change in the labour market, when more adults than ever before will have to re-train and upskill, it is right that we should be investing more in skills. Union learning plays an important role which is complementary to, but different from that played by our FE colleges and other providers. We hope the government will re-consider its decision and continue to work with unions and employers to level up skills."

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said:

“At a time when the country is on the brink of mass unemployment, and when ministers themselves are talking about the need for upskilling and retraining, it would be ludicrous to cut one of the most effective programmes allowing workers to expand their skillset.

“For twenty-two years, the Union Learning Fund has provided crucial training and guidance to thousands of firefighters. For injured and retiring firefighters, it’s a vital means of gaining new skills with courses offered in digital skills, health and social care, and fitness and nutrition.

“The programme makes life changing improvements to learner’s income and huge productivity benefits for employers, all while providing a lucrative return on investment for the Treasury.

“Scrapping the fund would blatantly place partisan politics over sensible policymaking and the needs of the economy. If the government has any care for the needs of working people, they’ll reverse this decision immediately.”

Scrapping Union Learning Fund would “place partisan politics over sensible policymaking” 

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has joined the TUC in calling on the government to reverse its decision to scrap funding for a lifelong learning programme, allowing retiring and injured firefighters to expand their skills and employment prospects.

The new campaign, Save Union Learning, launched by the TUC today (Monday) aims to persuade the government to drop proposals to end the Union Learning Fund (ULF).

The FBU’s Union Learning Fund projects, funded via the ULF is “one of the most effective programmes allowing workers to expand their skillset”, the FBU says, with a “lucrative return on investment” for the Treasury and employers.

Learners are able to benefit from a range of programmes covering subjects including fitness and nutrition, digital skills, and health and social care.

Each £1 spent on the FBU’s projects generates £6.93 for learners and £2.63 for employers, leading to £2 in returns to the Exchequer. The total annual economic contribution of the project is in excess of £32.7m, giving the Treasury £9.4m back from its £4.7m spend.

A study by the University of Essex showed that access to the programme increases wages by £16.5m and earnings by £3.7m, while increased productivity benefits employers by around £12.4m - Projected return on investment and economic figures from April 2019 - April 2022 from an independent University of Exeter impact report: Dean, A., Neild, B and Stevens, H. (2020). Impact Study: FBU. Round 20 (Year 2) Union Learning Fund Project. Marchmont Observatory, University of Exeter

The Union Learning Fund is subject to regular independent evaluation. The most recent evaluation (2018) found:

Skills growth

  • 68% of learners with no previous qualifications got a qualification
  • 47% with entry or level 1 qualifications got a higher qualification
  • 80% said they gained skills that could transfer to a new job

Employer benefits

  • 53% of employers saw an increase in employees gaining qualifications
  • 77% said that union learning had a positive effect on their workplaces
  • 68% said unions could reach and inspire reluctant learners to engage in training

Value for money:

  • For every £1 spent on the Union Learning Fund:
    • workers gain £7.60 through better pay
    • employers gain £4.70 through higher productivity
    • the Exchequer gains £3.57 from welfare savings and revenue gains
  • The Union Learning Fund delivers an estimated net contribution to the economy of more than £1.4 billion as a result of a boost to jobs, wages and productivity

Number of union learners: There were 200,000 union learners in 2019-20. And the TUC estimates that there have been 2.5 million learners since the union learning fund was launched in 1998. The count is the total of learning episodes.

New official data on employee access to training: The latest official data on employee access to training was published by the Department for Education last week (Employer Skills Survey 2019, Thursday 15 October). It shows that the proportion of employers not providing any training at all increased from 34% in 2017 to 39% in 2019; and the proportion of employees not getting any training increased from 38% in 2017 to 40% in 2019. 

Further employer support: Other businesses that have backed the campaign include Liberty Steel, British Steel, Müller Milk and Ingredients Division, and Milk&More (the doorstep delivery business part of the Müller Group). The TUC expects to confirm support from further businesses and employers over the coming days.

Case studies

Jodie, Usdaw, Tesco:  

Jodie works at Tesco, and she met union learning rep Sue Sowe at a “check out learning” day in 2017. Jodie wanted to know about courses that might help with the questions her children ask about their homework. Sue suggested that Jodie start with the National Numeracy Challenge. Jodie also felt that her digital skills could be improved, so Sue signed her up to the Get Online with Usdaw course. In 2018, Sue suggested that Jodie take a level 2 customer service course. This helped her confidence grow, so she signed up to a level 2 apprenticeship in IT, which helped her get a new job as an admin clerk in the store. Her manager said that the apprenticeship showed Jodie’s commitment and made her an excellent candidate for the role. She passed the apprenticeship in November 2019 and is now enrolled onto the Tesco Retail Apprenticeship course.

All these opportunities were made possible through the Union Learning Fund. Sue said: “Some people enquire, make a start and then just grow and grow. I am so pleased to have been able to help Jodie achieve what she wanted to do.”

Fode Sano, GMB, Hinkley Point C:

Fode is a carpenter working at Hinkley Point on the project to build a new nuclear power plant. The GMB learning team helped Fode identify learning opportunities to improve his maths and English skills, and guided him to online learning resources so that he could continue learning while furloughed. All these opportunities were funded through the Union Learning Fund.

Fode said: “Through the help of GMB union learning and my employer Bylor, I am working while continuing to study to improve upon the experience and qualifications I have recently attained.”

Cara Summers, Unite, Thomas Cook

When holiday company Thomas Cook collapsed in 2019, 10,000 staff faced redundancy. Unite stepped in to help those losing their jobs. They arranged meetings for groups of staff with Job Centre Plus and the National Careers Service. They organised CV writing workshops and courses in skills such as ICT. This work was funded through the Union Learning Fund.

Cara Summers had worked for the holiday company for 24 years. She said: “Having been in one job for so long, I had to start all over again with my CV and go back to looking for work. This course has given me the tools to apply for new positions and the self-confidence to utilise my transferrable skills to progress.”

Steve Preddy, Unite regional secretary for the South West said: “Through our network of learning teams, Unite was able to help and guide Thomas Cook workers as they rebuilt their lives and explored new employment opportunities. It would be tragic if we lost our funding from the Union Learning Fund when the pandemic is putting lots more people in need of this sort of help.”

Julia Murray, Unison, Newcastle City Council:

Julia has worked for Newcastle City Council for more than 13 years. Julia came to the Unison Learning Zone at the council in 2019, where she met Linda Slasor, a learning officer with Unison.

Julia’s lack of confidence had previously held her back. But with Linda’s help, her anxiety faded away. She got support with spelling, grammar and how to use spell check, completed Learn My Way, an online course, and moved onto a level 1 course as well as learning modules on her employer’s system. This support was funded through the Union Learning Fund.

Julia said: “Linda’s support gave me confidence. She is a very good listener and she made a difference.”

Linda said: “To say Julia was anxious and nervous is an understatement. I recognised she would benefit from one-to-one sessions and we continued to meet regularly.”

Union learning in Wales and Scotland: Funding for union learning is devolved.  The proposal to end government funding for union learning applies only to England.  

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