The trades union movement is claiming a return to its 19th-century roots as a champion of workplace education and training this week with the launch of a new union academy.
The academy, branded "unionlearn", will build on trade unions' track record of fostering education among members and is launched next week with pound;4.5 million from the Department for Education and Skills. It aims to improve training and educational opportunities for union members and to work with employers.
The Trades Union Congress hopes the academy, along with its network of union learning reps, will make it a major player in the learning and skills sector and give unions a stronger voice in shaping policy.
Liz Smith, the TUC's head of learning, said: "We are not going to be a college or a university. We are more about facilitating, branding and kite-marking learning.
"We are hoping to remove some of the barriers unions face to getting access to the range of learning that they want from colleges, universities and other providers.
"And we hope it will strengthen our relationship with employers.
"Our goal is to become the centre of excellence in England for supporting high quality union-led learning activity.
"Our success will be determined by how we can help unions put learning and skills at the heart of their organisation's agenda."
When the TUC was founded in 1868, one of its first motions backed more technical colleges. The Union Learning Fund was established in 1998 to develop union-led learning projects.
The first trained union learning reps were created, to give colleagues advice on learning and arrange training with employers.
Brendan Barber, the TUC's general secretary, said: "Just as health and safety representatives have helped make the workplace safer, ULRs are helping to make the workplace smarter."
More than 13,000 union learning reps have been trained. There are now 87 learning centres run in partnership with learndirect. Unionised workplaces are now 11 per cent more likely to have a training plan for their staff.
Unison, the public services union, offers its members basic skills courses, return-to-learn programmes, the opportunity to study for Open University degrees, professional development training, GCSEs and A-levels. The new academy will be run by the TUC, with a pound;16 million annual turnover and 120 staff in England.
An academy is also being set up in Scotland and a third is being considered in Wales.
In April next year, unionlearn will take over management of the pound;14.5 million-a-year union learning fund from the Learning and Skills Council.
The organisation will be responsible for guidance on training for workers and employers, with courses ranging from basic skills to professional development.
It will also give information and advice through a new helpline and website, and co-ordinate training for union reps. By 2010, it aims to have trained 22,000 learning reps and to have brought 250,000 union members into learning.
The Confederation of British Industry has offered support. Its senior policy adviser Marion Seguret said: "Learning reps have played a valuable role in encouraging employees into learning, particularly with basic skills.
"The services of a union academy should complement the training that's already undertaken by firms, with training to the benefit of the employee in the workplace.
"A lot of public money is going into these union learning academies. I think the CBI would say that these should concentrate on raising workforce skills and not be used as a union recruitment tool."
1868 TUC formed, with the central aim of improving the technical skills of workers 1899 Ruskin College established in Oxford to provide educational opportunities for workers 1903 Workers Educational Association founded 1969 Open University launched by Harold Wilson 1977 Health and safety reps given legal basis with right to reasonable time off for training and duties 1992 Adult Learners Week launched 1996 TUC courses accredited by National Open College Network 1997 Campaign for Learning launched - involving unions 1998 Learning Age Green Paper establishes Union Learning Fund 2000 First union learning reps trained and accredited 2002 Employment Relations Act provides statutory recognition for learning reps 2004 7,500 union learning reps helping learners 2006 Ten-year partnership between TUC and National Open College Network celebrated - over one million credits achieved by learners on TUC courses