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The government will struggle to get enough adult learners to take up their entitlement to free A-level equivalent training if ministers scrap the union learning fund, says a new TUC report published today (Tuesday).
  • In September, the PM pledged free skills training up to A-level to all adults who missed out at school  

  • Union learning will be key to getting reluctant adult learners to take it up   

  • But the union learning fund will be scrapped from spring 2021 

The government will struggle to get enough adult learners to take up their entitlement to free A-level equivalent training if ministers scrap the union learning fund, says a new TUC report published today (Tuesday). 

In September, the prime minister announced that all adults will be able to study for their first level 3 qualification (an A level or equivalent, such as a BTEC level 3) free of charge. The new level 3 entitlement will start in spring 2021. 

The crisis in UK skills and productivity is well-known – 40% of young people do not achieve a level 3 qualification by age 25. 

The TUC welcomed the new level 3 entitlement. But since this announcement, the education department have proposed scrapping the union learning fund – which helps get working people into job-relevant skills and training.  

The new entitlement will be a “paper promise” without support for learners  

The TUC says that without help to get adult learners back into learning and help them stick to the courses, the new level 3 entitlement will be a “paper promise” that only small numbers will use.   

Adult learners are often reluctant to get back into learning, facing barriers such as getting time to learn, managing their caring responsibilities, understanding their entitlements and battling low confidence.   

Even where courses are free of charge, the number of adult learners is falling. For example, the number of adults achieving first level 2 qualifications (GCSEs or equivalent) in English and maths has fallen by 30% since 2010 despite these courses being free. 

Union learning provides “crucial help” for reluctant learners  

Union learning is a rare success story in adult learning. It’s open to both union members and non-members.  

Union learning reps get people on to courses who would not previously have considered learning, help them stick to the course and progress, and broker time-off with employers to train.  

This practical support is a “crucial help” that makes paper entitlements to free learning a reality for working adults who need to improve their skills.   

The independent review of the union learning fund showed unions excel at supporting less confident learners, and at persuading those with few or no qualifications to take up the training opportunities open to them. Seven in ten learners said they would not have taken part in learning or training without union support. This rises to around 8 in 10 of those with no prior qualifications. 

Union learning helps get reluctant adult learners the basic skills they need to progress – and in many cases helps working people get their first ever qualifications.  

In the last year, the union learning fund helped 37,700 learners take up level 2 training courses in English and maths. This is a 48 per cent increase on the target of 25,600 set by the education department. Getting learners to achieve at level 2 is a gateway to getting more learners onto level 3 courses.  

“Puzzling” and “counterproductive” proposal to end union learning fund  

The TUC argues that union learning will make a huge contribution to getting a critical mass of learners to take up their entitlement to a free first level 3 qualification, through helping learners get the prior qualifications and skills to take up the entitlement, and through helping learners get back into and stick to learning.   

However, the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson has proposed to scrap the £12 million annual union learning fund from spring 2021 – just as free access to new level 3 training courses is introduced. 

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:  

“Union learning is a rare success story in adult skills. The union learning fund has helped millions of learners gain qualifications in English, maths and ICT over the last 20 years, especially those with few or no prior qualifications.  

“If ministers want their new skills policy to work, then they need to think about how to engage and support reluctant learners. That’s what union learning excels at – getting working people who missed out at school back into learning. Without this crucial help, the new entitlement is just a paper promise.  

“Union learning makes a massive contribution to the UK’s adult skills. The proposal to end it in spring 2021 is both puzzling and counterproductive. If we want to boost productivity and help the economy recover faster, then the prime minister must reject the proposal to scrap the union learning fund.” 

Editors note

- The full report is available at:  
- In September, the government announced that from April 2021 the new National Skills Fund will allow all adults to study for a level 3 qualification for free if they do not already have one:  
- About the union learning fund and Unionlearn: the union learning fund helps union members and non-members alike. It is funded by the Department for Education and can only be spent on learning and associated activities, not on other trade union activity. The TUC has produced this short briefing note with all the key information on the Union Learning Fund: 
- Number of union learners: There were 200,000 union learners in 2019-20. And the TUC estimates that there have been 2.5 million learners since the union learning fund was launched in 1998. The count is the total of learning episodes. 
- New official data on employee access to training: The latest official data on employee access to training was published by the Department for Education recently (Employer Skills Survey 2019, Thursday 15 October). It shows that the proportion of employers not providing any training at all increased from 34% in 2017 to 39% in 2019; and the proportion of employees not getting any training increased from 38% in 2017 to 40% in 2019: 
- The Trades Union Congress (TUC) exists to make the working world a better place for everyone. We bring together more than 5.5 million working people who make up our 48 member unions. We support unions to grow and thrive, and we stand up for everyone who works for a living. 

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