The Union Learning Fund (ULF) is a crucial program for lifelong learners which provides access to education for workers – and for many, it’s a route to their first formal qualification.
But a recent move from the government to revoke its £12 million budget means the future of union learning is at serious risk.
This has caused outcry among key stakeholders from across the work and skills sector, including the Chair of the Parliamentary Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon MP, who is seriously questioning the unexpected decision.
Improving skills for workers
The ULF - backed by unionlearn, the TUC’s learning and skills organisation - has consistently delivered on its aim of helping up to 250,000 workers access learning and training each year.
People undertake a wide range of learning and training including: English and maths foundation courses; ICT & digital skills; apprenticeships & traineeships; vocational training courses; further education/higher education; continuing professional development; and many other kinds of informal and formal courses.
In many cases, workers signing up for union learning have not engaged in any formal learning or training since leaving school, often because of a lack in confidence.
Making a difference for learners facing barriers
The ULF has been subject to regular independent evaluations, most recently by the University of Exeter (2018) and Leeds University (2016).
These drew on surveys of 2,500 learners and the 2016 study involved interviews with nearly 400 employers.
One of the key findings is the phenomenal reach of the ULF in supporting people who left school with few, if any, qualifications.
More than two thirds of learners with no previous qualification went on to gain a qualification for the first time in their lives.
Just under half of those who had a lower-level qualification - level 1 or below - progressed to a higher-level qualification through union-led learning.
And two thirds of employers said that the ULF was particularly effective at inspiring reluctant learners to engage in training and development.
Other key findings
The data clearly shows that union learning was just the beginning of a learning journey for many -and that this also boosted their job prospects.
Over three quarters of participants said that, as a result of engaging, they were more likely to undertake further learning or training.
Eighty per cent said that they developed skills they could transfer to a new job and just under three quarters became more confident in their abilities.
Employers also highlighted some key business benefits, including 77 per cent saying that engaging in union learning had a positive effect in their workplaces.
Using an economic model developed by the Department for Education, the researchers concluded that each annual round of the ULF adds £1.65 billion to the economy, as a result of the boost to jobs, wages and productivity.
Furthermore, every £1 invested in the ULF is generating a total economic return of over £12 - shared by workers and employers - and the return to the Exchequer is estimated to be £3.40 for each £1 of public funding.
Widespread support for union learning
Unlike any other union programme in recent decades, the ULF has endured and had the support of every government since the late 1990s.
Employers and employer bodies have also consistently voiced their support - and its positive impact has been highlighted by many economists, including in numerous OECD reports.
The wrong time to cut funding
With high unemployment looming and an urgent need for workers to gain new skills, now is the worst time to curtail a programme that has been hailed by the OECD and the government’s own Industrial Strategy Council.
Unionlearn and the ULF are at the ready to boost take-up of new skills initiatives that will be announced in the forthcoming Further Education and Skills white paper.
In light of growing opposition to the announcement from a wide range of stakeholders, we remain convinced that good sense will prevail and that the government will reconsider its position.
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