Unions and learning: Lessons from the past for today

Tom Wilson was Director of Unionlearn at the TUC from 2007 to 2015


12 04 2024


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Trade unions have a long tradition of learning. Ruskin, the Plebs’ League, the residential centres run by unions themselves and trade union courses in FE Colleges once flourished, but over the decades have now largely gone. More recently, the Blair government introduced the highly successful Union Learning Fund (ULF) which ran from 1999 until it was axed by Gavin Williamson in 2019. At an average cost of £10 million per year it helped unions bring learning to over two million adult workers and their families – often the low paid and most disadvantaged, not reached by other adult education programmes.

Should a future government reinstate the ULF? Seek to reverse other changes? To discuss the lessons of history for today, a series of seminars was recently held, organised by a mixed body of trade unionists and academics affiliated to the Institute for Historical Research at London University. The seminars were attended by around 100 senior trade unionists, academics and others, from the UK and abroad. This blog reflects the discussion.

The landscape is much changed. While a major Unison survey showed continued strong demand from members, mirrored in other unions, there is less demand for residential courses or face to face learning. Online learning is often much preferred, in bite sized chunks, especially for people juggling work and other commitments, who cannot find the time to attend a classroom course. The TUC and several unions have developed a series of popular ‘e-notes’ on what reps need to know e.g. about employment rights, health and safety, negotiating, or discrimination.

Unions are also running a much wider range of courses, for example on IT, mental health, personal development, and specific job-related courses. There is a network of Union Learning Reps (ULRs) who encourage and support members and activists; working with employers to increase and widen employee training. Many employers were initially sceptical but quickly won over as they saw the benefits of involving their employees in learning. There was and is strong employer support for the ULF. That’s the good news.

Less good is that axing the ULF inevitably reduced union learning. The UK has now fallen behind in the OECD group of countries engaged in social partnership on learning. Many unions in other countries support far more learning and work more closely with government and employers. Unions employed many staff using ULF money, who supported their members’ learning. After 2019 those staff numbers fell sharply. The number of union learners also dropped, although unions made extraordinary efforts to achieve and maintain learning programmes throughout the pandemic and beyond. The number of ULRs has similarly fallen.

This must be the main lesson for a future ULF: the funding must be designed to encourage and support long term union capacity. The 1999-2019 ULF did not encourage long term capacity building. Unions won annual ULF bids to employ staff to support ULRs. Those staff worked hard and successfully to develop new courses, promote workplace learning centres, support ULRs and persuade initially reluctant employers. But ULF funds were distributed annually so unions could only employ these staff on annual contracts. Unions quickly developed impressive numbers of learners. But unions have scarce resources. It takes time to build up longer term staff capacity. One-year contracts were fatally vulnerable. In later years a few longer term contracts were agreed and worked well, showing their potential.

A new ULF must be for the long term. One approach would be funding for longer contracts with a commitment from unions to build up their own resources over time. For example, a five-year contract might give full funding in year one but taper down to full union funding by year five.

The first ULF was also notoriously bureaucratic. Union bids had to account for unrealistic levels of detail. For example, if a union ran an event to promote learning which also encouraged people to join the union, is that a learning event or a recruitment event? There were arguments on whether learning should always be accredited, including informal taster events. Many unions grew exasperated with the mounting red tape. Department for Education civil servants tried to help but were hampered by Treasury rules.

A new ULF should be more flexible, encourage long term capacity building, and focus on outcomes rather than procedures. These design principles should be discussed and agreed well in advance. The seminars heard that the TUC is working closely with Labour staff which is welcome. Versions of the ULF have been successfully retained in Wales and Scotland, showing what can be done. If limits on funding mean a new ULF must be smaller, then priorities should be agreed, for example social care where there is a desperate shortage of trained staff.

Going further, the next government should look at strengthening rights to learning. The little-known Right to Request Time to Train, introduced in 2010, has been a quiet success. It is of course only a right to ask, but 90% of requests are quickly agreed; over a million by 2017. It should be extended to all employees, not just those in large companies. The apprenticeship levy could be extended to include support for union learning. The UK could adopt a legal right to paid time off to learn, this is an International Labour Organization (ILO) requirement, enacted by most other ILO countries, agreed but never enacted by the UK. Tax relief could be extended from research and development to more investment in training. Money will be tight for the next government, but stronger rights could make limited funds for a new ULF go further and strengthen long term capacity building.

Skills should be a priority for the next government. History shows that unions can play a crucial role, given the right help.

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Please send any comments on this blog to press@learningandwork.org.uk. Emails will be passed directly to Tom.