Union Learning Fund: The government must U-turn

To upskill and retrain workers, the government must work hand in hand with the unions, says the Learning and Work Institute
7th November 2020, 12:01am

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Union Learning Fund: The government must U-turn

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/union-learning-fund-government-must-u-turn
Union Learning Fund: The Government Must U-turn

The government must U-turn on its decision to scrap the Union Learning Fund from March 2021, the Learning and Work Institute has said.

In a new report published today, the Learning and Work Institute highlights evidence that links trade unions and collective bargaining to higher employer investment in skills - both in the UK and in other advanced economies.  

In October, Tes revealed that the Department for Education had decided to scrap the £11m ULF. Days later, education secretary Gavin Williamson told MPs that he would not apologise for scrapping the fund, which he said "channelled money into the TUC".

Earlier this week, Labour's shadow apprenticeships and lifelong learning minister Toby Perkins called the move "vindictive", saying the decision was not based on evidence, but on Mr Williamson's "antipathy" towards trade unions. 


Opinion: 'A valuable way to engage adults'

Labour: Scrapping Union Learning Fund is 'vindictive'

Need to know: Union Learning Fund to be scrapped from March 2021


'Unions are an ally'

Joe Dromey, deputy director of research and development at the Learning and Work Institute and author of the report, said that unions are "particularly effective at engaging the workers who could most benefit from upskilling".

He 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, the government should work with unions and employers to boost investment in training, and level up skills after coronavirus."   

The research found that employer investment in continuing vocational training in the UK is half the EU average, and that employers are more likely to invest in training at unionised workplaces.

It also found that workers with degree-level qualifications are four times as likely to take part in training at work than those with no qualifications - and highlights that studies in the UK have shown that there is a more equal distribution of training among the workforce at employers with union learning reps. 

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, 
  • and establish a National Skills Partnership bringing together government, employers, unions and skills experts, to set a long-term vision for the skills system.  

'A vital part' of the adult skills system

Frances O'Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said: "Ministers say funds will go to further education instead, but that overlooks union learning's unique role. Our learners are not going to take themselves off to college - in many cases, they begin as reluctant learners. But union learning reps raise their confidence and get them excited about learning opportunities that can improve their lives.   

"The pandemic, automation and climate crisis are changing millions of jobs, so learning new skills has never been more important. We can't afford to lose such a vital part of the adult skills system. We hope the government will listen not only to us, but to big employers like Tesco, British Steel and Heathrow who are calling for union learning to be saved too." 

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