All together now for union learning

8th October 2004 at 01:00
Plans for a new Union Learning Academy have been put out for consultation by the Trades Union Congress. It aims to bring together best practice in the various union learning initiatives.

For the past 10 years union learning has been a success, developing a new role for the movement alongside wage bargaining and the defence of working conditions and employment rights. Tens of thousands of working people have gained qualifications, and thousands more have become learning representatives - combining guidance with negotiating for the right to learn.

The academy must be warmly welcomed. From the Ford unions' early successes in negotiating the Employee Development and Assistance Programme (EDAP), which supported workers with any kind of learning other than explicit training, through Unison's Return to Learn programme and the recent flowering of learning initiatives across industrial sectors, there is much to build on. Indeed, the success of the union learning movement might be a useful benchmark by which to assess the employer-led Sector Skills Council's efforts to create a culture of learning at work.

Gordon Brown has described the academy as a "workers' university". The phrase has a ring to it, conjuring up the flowering of industrial democracy in the former Yugoslavia in the 1960s, or the 150-hour movement in Italy.

But recent experience also suggests that the term may be a distraction.

Look at Uf... learndirect. The Labour manifesto in 1997 promised a University for Industry, building on the idea of a corporate university developed by Motorola, Unipart and a panoply of other transnational corporations. When Uf... arrived university was heavily in inverted commas. No charter was awarded; no equivalence claimed with the educational institutions funded through the higher education funding councils. Indeed, early supporters of Uf... argued that it was not a university, and that it was not just for industry. That has not stopped it demonstrating that there is a huge demand for modest packages of learning, and for information and advice on what is available.

The National Health Service University, or NHSU, was the next major initiative to stretch the definition of university. Its chief executive Bob Fryer points out that an institution serving the largest workforce outside the Chinese army and the Indian railways has the potential to become the largest corporate university in the world. What I most admire about the remit of NHSU is its focus on the people who work in the health service who have had little chance to engage in learning up to now. The NHS spends an impressive pound;4 billion a year on developing its workforce, considerably more than the Learning and Skills Council has for post-19 education and training. Yet 46 per cent of its workers get two days or less training a year. The NHSU's holds out the prospect for real learning opportunities for porters, cleaners and care assistants.

If its early years are anything like UfI's, it will need resilience and clarity of purpose to keep on track. The Department of Health will want to exercise patience, too, to allow it to fulfil its potential. I just wonder if the "U" in NHSU makes that patience harder to achieve, as vested interests in HE express scepticism at such a broadly-conceived project acquiring university status.

To return to the Union Learning Academy, my advice is to avoid Gordon Brown's description for now. But there is a wider debate to have. How can we create institutions which command the respect our universities enjoy, but which cater for people whose learning journeys are more modest? This winter's legislation in Scotland, where proposals will be debated to create a single funding body for further and higher education, opens the way to the creation of a single tertiary system, and a chance to engage with the arguments. Tertiary legislation, the Uf... and NHSU all draw on a single idea, that a learning society needs a continuum of study from literacy and numeracy to continuing professional development for consultants, engineers and orchestral soloists, and that it is best to think about them all together. Common sense really, but hard to bring about.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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