Union learning provides around £1.4bn to the economy – but the Tories want to scrap it

It boosts jobs, wages and productivity but Gavin Williamson wants it gone

Jodie works at Tesco. After recently meeting a union learning rep, Sue, at a Checkout Learning Day, and asking about courses that might help her support her children with their homework, Jodie started some courses.

She did the National Numeracy Challenge and Get Online via Usdaw courses, quickly catching the learning bug. Sue then encouraged Jodie to take a level 2 customer service course. Her confidence grew and soon she was embarking on a level 2 apprenticeship in IT, which helped her land a new job as admin clerk. The store manager said her commitment to raising her skills made her an excellent choice.

All of Jodie’s opportunities were made possible through the Union Learning Fund, which supported 200,000 learners last year. Since its launch in 1998,it has supported a total of 2.5 million learners.

But earlier this month, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he will scrap the £12 million annual fund at the end of the current funding year (March 2021).

The TUC was stunned to receive this news. The Union Learning Fund is achieving its targets while also being supported by employers. It provides an estimated net contribution to the economy of more than £1.4 billion by boosting jobs, wages and productivity.

From basic skills and helping people learn English, to retraining for the jobs of the future, union learning transforms lives. And it has received glowing endorsements from a series of independent evaluations.

Benefits of the Union Learning Fund

Skills growth

  • 68% of union 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 at union learning workplaces 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.
  • Employers are stunned at the plans to scrap the fund too. They think union learning is ‘brilliant’.

Supporting the Fund

That’s why several major employers are backing us today as we launch our #SaveUnionLearning campaign. Tesco, Heathrow, Tata Steel, Hinkley Point C and Arla Foods are among those signed up already, and we expect more to follow.

“It’s as disappointing as it is perplexing,” said Paula Stannett, Heathrow Airport’s Chief People Officer.

“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.”

Tata Steel see union learning as a fantastic additional resource. HR Director Chris Jaques said: “This brilliant initiative allows us to raise the capability of our workforce.

“It makes us a more effective and productive organisation. The loss of the fund would certainly be detrimental.”

SaveUnionLearning 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.

CIPD Chief Executive, Peter Cheese, credits union learning with switching people on to learning who might not have done so otherwise.

“The Union Learning Fund has demonstrated its success at reaching organisations and individuals who would not otherwise have engaged in learning,” he explained.

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

So far, the only explanation given for the cut by the Department for Education is their wish to consolidate learning through further education. But this fails to appreciate the unique role it plays – especially with the potential learners who are never going to research or sign up for courses without support and encouragement.

News of the cut comes at the time when participation in learning and skills continues to fall to an all-time low. Only union learning has been able to reach workers that so evidently need help right now to upskill and retrain.

Union learning reps are trusted workmates. And it’s this trust that make it the Heineken of adult learning – it gets to people other approaches cannot reach.

We want to help more people understand why it is unique, why it is vital to ‘building back better’ after the pandemic, and why it must be central to the Prime Minister’s recent promise of a Lifetime Skills Guarantee.

To do this, we will be putting learners and learning reps at the heart of our campaign. It’s hard not to be moved by the transformation stories they tell about what it has done for them.

Kevin Rowan is Head of Organising, Services and Learning at the TUC.

You can sign the #SaveUnionLearn petition here and support the campaign on social media. You are encouraged to share you’re story if you’re a union learner.

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