Employers and unions unite in call to save Union Learning Fund

By agency reporter
October 21, 2020

The TUC has launched a campaign, Save Union Learning, to persuade the government to drop proposals to end the Union Learning Fund (ULF) in England. 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”.

The campaign is launched with backing from employers, unions and education and training organisations. Major employers supporting the campaign include Tesco, Heathrow, Tata Steel, Hinkley Point C and Arla Foods.

The campaign also 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.

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. Funding for union learning is devolved, and the proposal to end government funding applies only to England. 

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.

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

Skills growth

  • 68 per cent of learners with no previous qualifications got a qualification
  • 47 per cent with entry or level 1 qualifications got a higher qualification
  • 80 per cent said they gained skills that could transfer to a new job
  • 53 per cent of employers saw an increase in employees gaining qualifications
  • 77 per cent said that union learning had a positive effect on their workplaces
  • 68 per cent 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

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.”

Peter Cheese, Chief Executive, of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development 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."

Stephen 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."

The TUC is calling on people who have benefitted from union learning to share their story on social media – as text or video – with the hashtag #SaveUnionLearning.

Funding for union learning is devolved.  The proposal to end government funding for union learning applies only to England.  

* Campaign briefing here

* Union Learning https://www.unionlearn.org.uk/

* Trades Union Congress https://www.tuc.org.uk/

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