Big Issue North magazine, December 2020
Union Learning Defunded
Trade union adult education cancelled
Fund contributes £1.4bn to economy
A long-running adult education programme brokered by the trade union movement is to end after the government ended its funding.
The decision, made only days after Boris Johnson announced a Lifetime Skills Guarantee for adults, is being opposed not only by trade unions but also employers.
The Union Learning Fund (ULF), which began in 1998, is managed by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and provides courses and qualifications in everything from information technology to communication skills and mentoring apprenticeships.
Boosting jobs and wages
The ULF, now due to end March 2021, was worth £12 million in 2019-2020, supporting over 200,000 learners in workplaces across England – both union members and non-members.
Union learning reps (ULR) lead the fund. Elected by colleagues and recognised by their employer, they identify training requirements and promote lifelong learning in the workforce, many of whom have previously proven reluctant to return to education. ULRs have statutory recognition.
Many employers have recognised that the ULF can improve their employees’ skills. Five years ago, the Big Issue North covered the story of First Bus UK in Manchester where it was at the prompting of one of the company directors that the union Unite opened an onsite learning centre.
An evaluation by researchers from Exeter University in 2018 calculated that every £1 spent on the ULF brings in a return of £12.30: £7.60 to the worker, £4.70 to the employer. The TUC claims the fund contributes £1.4 billion annually to the economy by boosting jobs, wages and productivity.
HGV driver Gary McAllister has been a ULR at logistics company Wincanton in St Helens since Unite and shop workers union Usdaw signed a deal with his employer. He said: “You’d be surprised how many drivers have no computer skills and it is exciting seeing them grow in confidence so that they no longer fear using computers for simple things like emailing younger family members.
We have also organised many mental health awareness courses and even occasional ones for Spanish.
“Management is prepared to support workers who go on the courses in their spare time by agreeing to allow them paid release from work for half the study time. I am very disappointed to discover the ULF is likely to end.”
At Victoria Hospital in Blackpool, the emphasis is on providing online courses via the local college, including basic maths and English, as well as team leading and mental health awareness.
“The courses mean skill levels have obviously increased and whilst some course members are inspired by building their portfolios, others just enjoy learning new skills,” said ULR Barry Casey. “I believe the government is scrapping the ULF for its own ideological reasons as it is hostile to trade unions.”
Unions were told in October by the Department for Education (DfE) that the annual fund would cease. Only days beforehand, Boris Johnson promised to “give people of all ages the means and the confidence to switch and get the skills they need”.
Emma Taylor, Tesco people director, was among employers speaking out in favour of the ULF, saying its Checkout Learning programme had benefited 43,000 learners, including some employees that other schemes could not reach.
The DfE did not answer a series of questions from Big Issue North but a spokesperson highlighted Johnson’s comments and said that ending the ULF was due to “investing the money to directly support further education colleges, other training providers and our new £2.5 billion National Skills Fund to help more people learn new skills and prepare for the jobs of the future”.