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The Future of the Union Learning Fund

Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Key recommendations

An independent review with specific recommendations for government by University of Exeter.

This report sets out recommendations for an enhanced programme targeting those most in need and supporting the Industrial Strategy, National Skills Fund and regional levelling-up. The future of the Union Learning Fund is tied to its ability to support and enable Government priorities both in terms of adult skills and more broadly in areas that can benefit from enhanced adult skills, most notably:

  • Economic productivity
  • Regional levelling-up
  • Social inclusion
  • Digital literacy and embracing the Future of Work

These recommendations seek to establish a new ULF Programme that aligns, in particular, with the welcome re-prioritisation by the Prime Minster of Adult Skills.


1. ULF funding should have a 3-year rolling commitment from Government

2. ULF should be increased with new targets

3. Rationalise the centralised cost elements to link to learner outcomes

4. DfE to consider a future round of ULF to include capital equipment

5. Maintain the current support for training and maintaining ULRs and audit current coverage

6. Explore with Government a new model of Learning Agreement

Download full report (pdf)

Executive summary

The Union Learning Fund (ULF) has an established (and repeatedly positively-evaluated) track-record of training large numbers of learners and in particular, supporting those adult learners who are ‘hardest to reach’. It has also moved swiftly to help the Government respond to the needs of a workforce subject to the constraints and pressures of COVID-19. Although union learning is only delivered in unionised workplaces, it is open to all workers and not just union members. The current threat to remove union learning will undoubtedly reduce workplace learning opportunities for all.

New Research and Analysis

In this document we report on the results of new work to help identify the value and impact of the ULF and just how important it is in delivering Government policy and targets. We have produced new research into:

  • The economic impact, return on investment to employers and learners and returns to the Exchequer of the ULF
  • The skills needs of the ‘left behind’ geographies in England and have identified the important role that skills must play in any regional levelling-up
  • The results of a new survey examining the response to COVID-19 from the current Round of ULF Projects with a look at their impacts and returns
  • A qualitative meta-evaluation of previous research identifying where the ULF is delivering DfE priorities such as learner progression, supported apprenticeships, digital literacy and health and wellbeing
  • An exploration of current literature around the importance of the ULF and of social partners in the delivery of the Industrial Strategy
  • An analysis of recent trends in Adult Education and an analysis of the challenges the UK faces in building a skilled workforce

New analysis for this report exploring the return on investment and economic impact of the ULF (using a methodology previously agreed with the Treasury) has found that in the most recent Round of ULF (2019-2020) the return on investment was very considerable. We estimate that the £12m union learning supported ULF Round 20 projects would have an overall impact (benefits to employers and individuals) of £1,477m.
As the ULF is principally concerned with brokering learning, it is important to add the central cost of administering the programme and the cost of delivering the learning associated with the ULF investment to estimate the return on investment. Applying the unit cost of delivery to the cohort of ULF results in an overall cost of £115m, made up of £103m in training costs and £12m in brokerage and ULF central costs. On this basis, we estimate that £1 investment in the Union Learning Fund in Round 20 generated a total economic return of £12.87 of which £7.56 accrues to individuals and £5.31 to employers. These high levels have been consistent over the many year of ULF and have even increased over time.

Taking into account both the cost of ULF Round 20 and the cost to partners of delivering ULF generated learning, the estimated return to the Exchequer is £3.60 for each £1 spent. Clearly this comfortably exceeds the scale of the initial Exchequer investment and has increased over the lifetime of the ULF.

Within this report we look for the first time at the crucial role that the ULF is playing in supporting the Government’s Industrial Strategy, the new work on regional levelling-up and the pressing need to help rebuild our economy after COVID-19. It is evident that the ULF is already underpinning critical policy areas such as technical education, apprenticeships and traineeships, the National Skills Fund, and has a track record of delivery in the ‘left behind’ geographies. We establish that in the towns which are most left behind there is already a growing productivity gap with the rest of England. This is linked to skills and in our study of recipients of the Town’s Fund - the 20% of left behind towns with the lowest levels of NVQ3 or higher qualifications in the workforce had productivity at just 72% of the national average. In examining these geographies we have identified that the ULF is already active in left behind workplaces and that there is the capacity to deliver more - re-training and up-skilling displaced workers as part of a coordinated response to COVID-19.

Our analyses of the most recent performance of ULF indicates that in first two quarters of this year reveal it has been functioning well above target in many of its DfE Priority groups. For example, in the first two quarters of 2020/21, projects were almost 90% above the target level for English courses and 47% above target for the equivalent maths courses. Projects are also 72% above target for Level 1 ICT learners and have supported over 5,000 Apprenticeships against a target of 3,147 in the most recent quarter. Under COVID-19 with a pressing need for digital and other worker support the ULR network achieved 147,662 learner support referrals in just six months.

ULF projects have also switched very quickly to delivering almost exclusively online and this has necessitated rapidly developing or expanding new platforms for delivery and creating new materials. This includes materials specifically designed to keep workers safe and to support their mental and physical health and wellbeing. 79% of projects cite specifically acting to help ensure workers were able to physically stay safe from the potential impact of COVID-19 whilst still working.

Our meta-analysis has emphasised the importance of the ULF in achieving life-changing benefits to many thousands of learners. Regular evaluations and impact studies have cited the benefits that accrue to learners in terms of career, promotion and progression to new skills. They also stress the value of the Union Learning Representative (ULR) network and how important they are in reaching individuals often with poor experiences of education and whose return to learning can have major positive implications for them, their employers and their families.

The unique strengths of the ULF

A major challenge for most training providers is reaching those learners with low literacy, numeracy and digital skills who may be reluctant to engage in learning. Reaching out and engaging with these learners is the ULF’s ‘USP’ and the personal nature of support and help from a trusted peer is impossible to replicate without very significant financial implications for Government.

The ULF is something quite unique and by education standards it receives a relatively small sum given its considerable impact. Its ability to act as an evangelical voice for ‘skills’ at a very difficult time, mid and post-COVID, where new policy initiatives will need time to reach their market, means it has the potential to boost the adoption of the Government’s welcome new adult skills plans.

The valuable role of the ULF and the unions who deliver it has been acknowledged by a number of government sponsored and independent experts such as the OECD. Independent evaluations point to over-achievement of targets, value for money and the fact that unionlearn enables learners to access support through their workplaces, relevant to their work, and at a time and place convenient to them – all essential pre-requisites for the future success of the Government’s skills agenda, which will require no less than a culture change if it is to succeed.

Countering a decline in Adult Education

Against a backdrop of rapid change in the world of work and the need to boost productivity, action to address adult skills is crucial. However, adult education is in decline; it often fails to benefit those who need it most; and employer investment in learning has fallen. Since 2010 there has been a 45 per cent decline in Level 2 English and maths courses and a 60 per cent decline in adults achieving this qualification. As more onus is put on individuals to take responsibility to develop their skills and to finance themselves, there is an acknowledged need for individuals and their employers to be supported in social partnerships to navigate the system and embrace the culture change needed for lifelong learning.

Targeting the most in need

The ULF has been used successfully to target those most in need, a 2015 evaluation1 identified that the proportion of union learners with no formal prior qualification was 12 per cent. This is four times higher than the average across unionised workplaces (3%). Further, union learning stimulates demand for further learning. A second evaluation in 20182 found that respondents agreed that union learning resulted in them: becoming more confident in their abilities (68%); more enthusiastic about learning (74%); and better able to organise, mentor and support other people (58%). Around half of all learners agreed that union learning had improved their quality of life and well-being (46%)3.

It is the task of the ULF not only to support success but to tackle the barriers to learning and engage adults in first steps learning which can set them on a longer term journey, leading to more measurable ‘hard’ outcomes, which may be less apparent in the short term4. The 2018 Union Learner Survey findings revealed that the more learning episodes a learner undertakes, the more likely they are to gain a qualification and a greater range of softer outcomes. This underlines the continual need for support to bring about a ‘learner journey’ in individual lives.

Regular ULF evaluations have helped highlight the significant benefits to learners, employers and the wider economy. Given this and our new research and analysis reported here, our central conclusion is that there is considerable value in continuing funding for the ULF.

The current payment by results format does deliver consistently good returns from projects and the last 3-year funding allocation allowed projects a longer-term focus for some of their work, which was welcomed.

We believe that given the Prime Ministers very welcome announcements regarding FE Funding, the Lifetime Skills Guarantee and National Skills Fund, the ULF offers very considerable potential to help these new initiatives and programmes reach their target audience.

We are convinced that the ULF meets the Government need to build back better from the pandemic. With skills playing a crucial role in enabling increased productivity, it can form a part of the move to level-up our regions. As a resource to government it consistently delivers well over 200,000 learners targeting the hardest-to-reach through a unique network of trusted and impartial learning intermediaries (ULRs).


As a result of our work we are able to make a number of recommendations for an enhanced programme targeting those most in need and supporting the Industrial Strategy, National Skills Fund and regional levelling-up. The future of the Union Learning Fund is tied to its ability to support and enable Government priorities both in terms of adult skills and more broadly in areas that can benefit from enhanced adult skills, most notably:

  • Economic productivity
  • Regional levelling-up
  • Social inclusion
  • Digital literacy and embracing the Future of Work

Our recommendations therefore seek to establish a new ULF Programme that aligns, in particular, with the welcome re-prioritisation by the Prime Minster of Adult Skills.

Recommendation 1. ULF funding should have a 3-year rolling commitment from Government

The Return on Investment (RoI) for the ULF is demonstrably high and given the Prime Ministers stated aims to boost adult skills, ULF is core route for reaching priority learners. Research into the ULF has identified that repeated learning episodes generate the greatest benefits. Logically therefore maintaining staff and learning centres with a consistent offer should be a priority. ULF remains unique and achieving a replacement from scratch, would be considerably more expensive.

Recommendation 2. ULF should be increased with new targets

This report echoes the findings of the very recent Learning and Work Institute Report (2020) that Government should continue to invest in the ULF to support workers to access workplace learning. Further we suggest that the ULF and its ULR network offers considerable potential to boost learner numbers and learner outcomes amongst the hardest to reach. The infrastructure is already in place and ULF projects consistently deliver. Additional funding would increase the Government’s own ability to reach learners needing English, maths and ICT. Government should attach additional targets to the enhanced funding. New targets could include:

  • FE and training provider access to ULRs and workplace provision - The delivery of courses from basic or functional skills through to higher level courses typically involves external providers, but there is no regular reporting of just who is providing courses where. This information would help DfE in understanding the market penetration of different providers to target regions, qualifications and sectors.
  • Delivery of potential Career Development Accounts - Many of the recent CBI suggestions, such as new National Skills Portal and Career Development Accounts (CDAs), will cost very considerably more to establish than the ULF costs each year. A refocussed ULF could help ensure their delivery reaches those who really need it – with independent ULRs helping link learners to approved and trusted deliverers. This will also help avoid some of the negative publicity that accompanied the introduction of ILAs, which would be a comparable model to CDAs.
  • Ensure ULF targets learner progression, particularly in line with the new Level 3 entitlement - Details are still emerging concerning the new level 3 entitlement but it makes sense for this to form a new ULF target.
  • Prioritise more targets for digital skills, including those provided to the wider community - ULF has been particularly successful at supporting workers digital skills needs and recognising that entitlements and free courses in themselves won’t solve the digital skills gap is important. The role of ULRs in sign posting and encouraging people back into learning is absolutely critical here.
  • Recognise the importance of signposting staff to Health and Wellbeing courses in ULF - It would be valuable to record the number of Health and Wellbeing referrals that are taking place to help inform how unions and employers are enacting government campaigns and responding to COVID.
  • Consider further new targets around COVID response - There are various areas where learning activity can support both the immediate and longer term response to Covid-19. DfE should re-consider the priority outcomes to ensure people can work safely and healthily online using the new tools and techniques that are becoming part of the new normal.

Recommendation 3. Rationalise the Centralised cost elements to link to Learner Outcomes

Centralised costs should cover such areas as:

  • Evaluation and learner tracking
  • Maintenance and expansion of the ULR Network
  • New and existing course provision
  • Overall ULF Management and Administration

Recommendation 4. DfE to consider a future round of ULF to include capital equipment

DFE should consider that where employers and unions are also willing to contribute up to 50% of costs - a small capital budget could be provided. This could also be linked to the provision of a learning agreement and commitments around any new learning entitlement with targets to support priority learners potentially attached.

Recommendation 5. Maintain the current support for training and maintaining ULRs and audit current coverage

The role that ULRs already play as advocates for skills and lifelong learning should not be under estimated. Attempting to replicate a system with 40,000 volunteer advocates already IN the workplace, AND with particular concentrations in geographies key to the Government’s levelling-up Agenda would be immensely time-consuming and costly. The next round of ULF should incorporate a mapping of active ULRs – defining active in an appropriate way – such as ‘successfully linked at least one colleague into IAG or learning within the past 12 months’. Figures exist for those numbers trained but more information on their day to day activity would be helpful.

Recommendation 6. Explore with Government a new model of Learning Agreement

This should incorporate guaranteeing staff time-off associated with new adult learner entitlements and the Lifetime Skills Guarantee - linked to ULR IAG and learner support in the workplace. Based on a template agreed with DfE and potentially through the National Training Partnership. This could speed up adoption in workplaces.

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