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Rethink cut to Union Learning Fund and work with unions to level up skills after coronavirus

Joe Dromey, deputy director of research and development at Learning and Work Institute

The government has been urged to rethink the planned cut to the Union Learning Fund, and work with trade unions to re-train and upskill after the coronavirus crisis.

The Union Learning Fund supports a network of union learning reps, who work with employers to engage workers in learning and training. Last year, the Union Learning Fund supported 200,000 learners, with thousands achieving their first ever qualification. The government announced in October that they were planning to cut funding for the Union Learning Fund next year.

In a new report, Learning and Work Institute – a leading employment and skills think tank – found evidence linking trade unions and collective bargaining to higher employer investment in skills – both in the UK and in other advanced economies.

Employer investment in continuing vocational training in the UK is half the EU average, and a recent national survey found that and the proportion of employers providing training had plummeted. The report highlights evidence from a series of national surveys showing that employers are more likely to invest in training at unionised workplaces. New analysis also shows that in countries with more widespread collective bargaining, employers are more likely to provide training, and employer investment per worker is higher.

The report also highlights evidence that trade unions could help level-up investment in skills. The UK suffers from stark inequalities in the distribution of training; workers with degree level qualifications are four times as likely to take part in training at work than those with no qualifications. Studies in the UK have shown that there is a more equal distribution of training among the workforce at employers with union learning reps, and evaluations of the Union Learning Fund has shown that it is particularly effective at engaging workers with lower levels of qualifications.

The UK is unusual in having no formal role for social partners – employers and trade unions – in the skills system. We are one of just four out of 36 OECD countries with no formal role for social partners in the governance of the education and training system.

The report calls on the government to:

  • Continue to invest in the Union Learning Fund to support workers to access workplace learning;
  • Introduce a ‘duty to consult on workforce training’, which would require large employers to consult their workforce – either through their union or through a workplace forum – on their workforce training strategy;
  • Reform the system for designing, approving and quality assuring training to give workers a voice;
  • Establish a ‘National Skills Partnership’, bringing together government, employers, unions and skills experts, to set a long-term vision for the skills system.

Joe Dromey100x100Joe Dromey, deputy director of research and development at Learning and Work Institute and author of the report, said;

If the government wants to boost employer investment in skills, and level up access to training, then unions are an ally. The evidence is clear; unions are associated with higher employer investment in training, and they are particularly effective at engaging the workers who could most benefit from upskilling.

“The government should not scrap the Union Learning Fund. It helps hundreds of thousands of workers improve their skills every year, and independent evaluations show it delivers real value for employers and for the economy too. Instead, government should work with unions and employers to boost investment in training, and level up skills after coronavirus.” 

Kevin Rowan 100x100Unionlearn Director Kevin Rowan welcomed the report and said:

“We are pleased to see that this report recognises the links between union learning and higher investment in skills from employers and the way that unions have a vital role to play in levelling up skills investment.  The Union Learning Fund has, for over 20 years, provided support to workplace learning that benefits not only hundreds of thousands of learners and their employers, but also contributed to economic growth by delivering an estimated net contribution to the economy of more than £1.4 billion as a result of a boost to jobs, wages and productivity.

“We hope that the voices of workers, unions, employers, education providers and others will be listened to, and the threatened cuts reversed so that projects funded by the ULF can continue to provide important help at a time when developing skills will be vital for the recovery.” 

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