The Welsh Government has demonstrated its commitment to union-led learning by launching the new WULF prospectus this week and inviting trade unions to submit applications for new projects to begin in 2022.
This funding commitment in Wales comes in the light of the decision taken by the UK Government last year to end support for the equivalent programme in England, the Union Learning Fund (ULF).
Data compiled from across the whole WULF programme last year shows that the current 18 projects truly delivered for workers during some of the most challenging times, almost doubling learner numbers and adapting their projects to deliver a massive increase in online learning and support for workplace wellbeing.
It is this adaptability, driven by the unique needs-driven approach of union led learning, that means WULF could play an important role in addressing some of the recognised challenges we face across the adult learning and skills system in Wales.
In particular, ensuring workers have access to the support they need to transition their skills to meet the increasing calls to decarbonise workplaces, and the rapidly increasing use of digital technology and automation of the workplace.
A number of recent publications point to the current demand led skills system in Wales not being sufficient to deal with the increasing skills gap. For example, see this 2019 report from the Institute for Public Policy Research and also the work undertaken by the New Economics Foundation on behalf of the Future Generations Commissioner.
The demand for skills and jobs is simply not coming through fast enough from employers at the moment, particularly when you look at demand linked to the green economy. This is likely to result in our system in Wales lagging behind other countries as the associated skills supply will not be developed at the pace necessary for our economy to adapt.
A programme such as WULF, with worker voice and the needs of individuals inherent to the funding itself, can help create that demand. Trade unions have a unique ability to ‘collectivise’ the needs of workers and bargain with employers to create the demand, and then subsequently use the funding to improve the supply of relevant skills.
Against a backdrop of declining participation numbers across adult learning as a whole in Wales, the challenge becomes even harder. WULF and the union led learning model can assist here also. A survey of WULF learners published last year showed that the WULF model is noticeably strong at widening participation from hard-to-reach learners and those learners in turn are far more likely to progress onto further learning when engaging via their union.
So, for these reasons, I am excited to see what the next round of WULF projects will bring to Wales.
As in previous rounds, I am sure that the projects will be full of innovative ideas and will support thousands of working people into learning. However, at this pivotal time for the Welsh economy, it is also about how this ready-made, inclusive and adaptable model can point to possible solutions for the challenges that our skills system clearly faces in Wales.
We have a unique model here within the trade union movement that places the needs of workers and collective bargaining as central to its approach. I believe there is a lot that could be learned from this model and applied more widely across the skills landscape in Wales. The innovative approaches developed by the new round of WULF projects could help to ensure that we can transition the skills of Welsh workers in the fairest way possible.
WULF Application Forms