Secret plans for new trade union academy

Plans to set up a national college for labour to serve the trade union movement are being discussed in secret between institutions responsible for educating some of Britain's top politicians.

One of its roles would be to help reshape training courses for trade union negotiators and officials to fit the world of the new Labour Government.

It could also be a leading forum in the debate over the relative roles of the Labour party and trade unions in the labour movement of the 21st century.

A range of possibilites have been explored in talks between Ruskin College, Oxford, and Northern College, Barnsley, to shape the new agenda.

Both are residential adult education colleges which have played a key role in educating leading politicians and trade unionists throughout the 20th century.

They include John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, former Trades Union Congress general secretary Norman Willis and Lord Ashley, former MP and prominent campaigner for the disabled.

The first public acknowledgement of the plans came in a broad hint from Professor Bob Fryer, principal of Northern College and the man hand-picked by education and employment minister Baroness Blackstone, to head the task group charged with helping draft the lifelong learning White Paper.

Professor Fryer told a fringe meeting of the annual Trades Union Congress in Brighton to expect "a closer rapprochement between Ruskin and Northern Colleges" in the near future. He was speaking at a joint meeting run by both colleges and the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.

At the outset, it would be a college within the Further Education Funding Council sector, which provides a substantial part of the cash for both the key players.

But there is understood to have been a deep sense of frustration in the colleges that, tied to the FEFC purse-strings, they have not grown as fast as they might.

Stephen Yeo, recently-retired principal of Ruskin, told The TES, the idea for a national labour college came from both college managements it would be "a flagship for the labour movement."

Leading supporters for the initiative include Rodney Bickerstaff, general secretary of UNISON, the biggest public sector union, and Tom Sawyer, general secretary of the Labour party.

The college for labour would be a "collaboration" between the two colleges.

There is no suggestion of a merger at this stage. But together they would form the largest residential college in Britain, with a national network of affiliated trade unions.

Ruskin dominates the market for full-time trade union students, while Northern holds the majority of part-timers. Chris Wilks, general secretary of Ruskin, said: "We already work together on many things and we are at the early stages of talking about how we might work closer. We have very simlar constituences and people coming though our colleges."

Ruskin and Northern were exploring ideas such as joint marketing and other ways of reducing unnecessary bureaucracy. But the need to co-operate on the fundamentals of trade union education have also been identified.

A typical area where the new "college" could provide new services to the trade unions, is in training for workplace bargaining skills.

The Trade Union Research Unit is presently preparing a national bargaining position for unions. The new college for labour could be the instrument for retraining officials in line with the needs identified in the research.

The college would also work with trade unions to produce courses on political education and citizenship. It would design adult courses for the wider community on trade union and labour issues and topics such as popular education for democracy.

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