From education to employment

Liz Smith, director of unionlearn, writes about the importance of lifelong learning in her Novem

Unionlearn has won its spurs as a leading proponent of Skills for Life in the workplace, but fewer people are aware of the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) work that we are doing. That there is great appetite for CPD is undisputed. In the first month of the unionlearn Learning and Careers Advice Service, the most frequent enquiries were about law and psychology courses. And the majority of people who used this service had no qualifications. All this reveals the hopes and aspirations of trade union learners, who recognise the value of education and are now confident enough to reach out for it. The good news is, that once they have started learning, they just can”t get enough of it.

One of our key roles is to make sure that learners progress to whatever levels they aspire to. Level Two is just the beginning, as far as unionlearn is concerned, which is why we offer advice and guidance on all levels of courses. And unionlearn backs up its promises with practical partnerships with key providers such as the Open University, the National Open College Network, National Extension College and Sector Skills Councils. Thanks to the excellent relationships we have developed, trade union members benefit from 10 per cent off some OU courses, and all NEC courses, and learners can rely on our Quality Award, which stamps a unionlearn seal of approval on providers. These measures show that unionlearn takes its responsibilities towards union learners seriously and it shows a long-term commitment to providing pathways to both further and higher education.

Don”t just take my word for it. A new piece of survey-based research, Learning Unlimited: A survey of union members and higher education opportunities, by the Open University and unionlearn highlights union members” increasing awareness that higher level skills will be required in the workplace. Almost all the respondents agreed that it was important to be continually learning. The survey revealed that two in five were already engaged in further education, training or development and more than two in five had an A Level or equivalent qualification. Almost a third of the respondents already had at least a first degree or equivalent and were ready to progress through postgraduate education/continuing professional development. Four in five wanted to take up learning for personal development or leisure, and over a half thought it would benefit them in work.

Unfortunately, the research revealed the same old problem that learners face in workplaces throughout the country. Sixty per cent felt that getting time off was a problem and over 80 per cent agreed that their employer providing time off to study would determine whether or not they took up courses. Predictably fees and course costs were another barrier, and almost three quarters expressed an interest in learning if the employer paid all or part of the fees. We can all identify with people when they said that they needed help with childcare, travel, and study costs.

Yet, it is also evident from the survey that new ways of learning are needed. Traditional methods of learning, such as lectures were a turn-off for many, who wanted to learn in small groups. It’s clear that to satisfy these needs, more incentives for employers to provide paid time off to learn and to contribute to fees are needed. As unions, we need rights to negotiate these types of opportunities. Given that much more flexibility in the delivery of learning is required, Union Learning Representatives are playing an important part in helping, and supporting, their members to access higher education. Unionlearn wants to see lifelong learning mean life.

Liz Smith, Director, unionlearn

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