Why I'm proposing a national college for Unison members

Assistant general secretary Christina McAnea says a national college would build a broader learning service for members
5th November 2020, 4:01pm
Christina McAnea


Why I'm proposing a national college for Unison members

Unison Union Assistant General Secretary Christina Mcanea Would Like To Set Up A National College To Support Members

Trade unions have a long and proud history of providing education and training for their members. Many of today's colleges and universities were built on the late 19th-century colleges that unions set up to help educate working people. That tradition continues today with modern union learning services. The new National Unison College I'm proposing will build a bigger, better and broader learning service for Unison members

There are three kinds of modern trade union training. First are courses for activists. These cover the whole gamut of rights at work, including discrimination, health and safety, negotiating and union organisation. Second are courses which help members get on at work, offering professional qualifications; for example, in health or housing. Third are courses which enhance life and broaden horizons: painting, languages, music, numeracy, computing, writing and whatever members want.

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All three kinds of learning rely on union learning representatives (ULRs), together with the professional tutors and teachers. Unison works closely with colleges, universities and other adult education bodies to deliver learning in partnership.

Launching a Unison national college

Unison activists (including ULRs) have a legal right to paid time off for training, but there is no such right to time off for other kinds of training. Nonetheless, many employers greatly value all forms of union learning. Unison ULRs have negotiated hundreds of Learning Agreements that provide time off and financial support for all kinds of courses. Until last month, government also gave support through the £10 million Union Learning Fund.

Set up in 1998, it has helped train tens of thousands of union learning representatives and enabled over 2 million union members, and their families, to access courses. Just weeks ago, the government cut all union funding, with no warning - and despite strong support for the ULF from many employers. 

My belief in a Unison college reflects the crucial importance of learning in my life and in the lives of Unison members. I left school in Glasgow at 16 having sat my Highers. Over the next few years, I worked in a variety of jobs, then went to university in my twenties. Experience of work pre and post graduating helped shape my views, as I saw trade unions helping members to develop fully their potential, not just as union reps, but as workers. I've seen first-hand how life-changing trade union education can be for some people.

I was lucky. So many of our members left school with no formal qualifications. Many work in low-paid and low-valued jobs, their skills unrecognised, with little chance of promotion or grade progression. Unison has helped thousands to move on through our pioneering Return to Learn programme. Members have gained new skills, qualifications and confidence; thousands have gone to college and university. Unison offers English for speakers of other languages (Esol) courses to the many migrant workers who form the backbone of our public services. 

I want to go much further. A new National Unison College would offer free and subsidised education and training opportunities for members. It would campaign for better rights to paid time off. It would demand that the government restores funding for union learning, which studies have shown is by far the most cost-effective form of support for adult education. 

The Covid crisis has shown that reskilling for tomorrow's economy is vital. Many workers face an uncertain future and must get the chance to learn the skills they will need for tomorrow's jobs. Online learning has opened up vast new opportunities, which the National Unison College will fully explore - though skills cannot just be learned through computer screens. 

I want to make sure that the door to learning remains open for every member, and their families. That means real support with advice, funding and time off to learn. The National Unison College will gather together tutors, best practices and experiences from all our current learning programmes and training courses. It will use online learning but also in-person learning. It will help regions and ULRs to negotiate and organise courses that members need and want - delivered where, when and how they want. It will offer workshop-based collective learning that will include trade union training, as well as personal and professional development.  

The college will expand partnerships with national professional bodies and institutions to open up new opportunities across the country. It aims to help far more members gain qualifications and have real opportunities to develop.

Above all, the college must respond to what members will need in the post-Covid world. 

Christina McAnea is assistant general secretary for bargaining, negotiations and equalities at Unison, the public service union, and is standing for election as general secretary

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