Going higher: encouraging learning to degree level and beyond in the workplace

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date: September 20, 2010

embargo: no embargo

Fire fighters, customs staff, health workers, postal workers and teachers and teaching assistants are among a range of new learners who are now studying at degree and masters degree level through their workplace.

In the past year a project led by unionlearn SERTUC (Southern & Eastern TUC), in partnership with fdf, has led to 150 union members being recruited to foundation degrees and other higher-level courses. Unionlearn, the TUC's learning and skills arm, has used its army of volunteer union learning reps (ULR) to advise their colleagues on HE courses and give them the confidence to apply. ULRs are also negotiating with employers to provide time off for studying and establishing Learning Agreements.

Unionlearn has brokered deals with HE providers including the Open University, and the universities of Kingston and Birkbeck. to provide discounts on courses to union members. Unions are working with universities and colleges to put on taster courses and to provide flexible, part-time and modular programmes so that learners can combine their studies with work commitments. The vocational nature of foundation degrees make them directly relevant to people's jobs and their career progression.

The project provided briefings for more than 400 ULRs, liaised with 15 trade unions and 43 employers in more than 60 workplaces and raised awareness among universities, further education colleges and sector skills councils. The project worked with organisations including Royal Mail, BT, Royal Sun Alliance and Air France. Unionlearn resources include an HEI Checklist providing information for universities and FE colleges in how they can best provide higher-level courses to union members. A guide for trade union reps Higher education at work: making the case to employers provides information and case studies for ULRs.

The scheme has been particularly successful at recruiting learners from non-traditional and diverse backgrounds; almost a quarter are from black minority ethnic backgrounds and a fifth are aged 50 plus.

Unions are typically associated with promoting Skills for Life and Level 2 qualifications for their members. However, promoting Level 4 learning and beyond is seen as equally important and the unionlearn SERTUC project shows that unions can play a vital role in raising skills at this level.

Barry Francis, regional manager unionlearn SERTUC, said: 'This project has proved that union-influenced higher learning can be more representative, inclusive and relevant. It can reach out to groups who would otherwise have no access to learning at this level and we can offer incentives, including fee discounts. Union involvement in learning helps improve industrial relations. It also plays a role in upgrading the skills of the workforce, so we can compete in a tough international labour market. Furthermore, union involvement will build activism via more skilled and confident members and reps.'

Derek Longhurst, chief executive of fdf , said: 'We value the partnership with unionlearn and we are delighted with the outcomes of this joint project. In particular the project has enabled involvement of unions in fdf's work force development initiatives with employers and sector bodies and has been instrumental in drawing together unions, their employers and higher education providers to promote a more highly skilled workforce.'

Unionlearn intends to develop its partnership with fdf and use the experience of the project in the South East to inform projects in other TUC regions.

Unionlearn SERTUC is holding an event on September 24 to promote the publication Accessing HE in the Workplace Project, by Sean Ruddy. Speakers include Tom Wilson, director of unionlearn, Tom Beattie, head of Lifelong Learning and officer development, Unite, Susan Hayday, fdf's director of Workplace Learning Strategy and Barry Francis, regional manager unionlearn SERTUC. There will be case studies from Unison and Addenbrooke's Hospital. Ian Borkett, standards & quality manager unionlearn, and Lesley Haughton, consultant, will be discussing a number of HE unionlearn resources for ULRs and employers. The executive summary of Accessing HE in the Workplace Project, can be downloaded at www.unionlearn.org.uk

Case Study

Gaynor Purdom was working as a secretary for a community mental health team in High Wycombe when she began an Open University option in health & social care, followed by a general health course. Now, she is studying a Level 3 course in social psychology and hopes by the end of the year to graduate with a BSc. As a member of Unison, she took advantage of the 10% discount. She said: 'As well as improving my career prospects, studying with OU has made a big difference to my personal life. It has challenged me intellectually and has improved my confidence and self-esteem.'

Gaynor has quit secretarial work to become a care worker, working with people who have learning disabilities and mental health problems.


Foundation Degree Forward (fdf), is a national body that works with employers, employees and higher education providers to create innovative work-based learning http://www.fdf.ac.uk/

Foundation degrees were introduced in September 2001. They are devised for work-based learning and are equivalent to the first two years of an honours degree.

The Leitch review of skills set a target of 40% of people of working age to have obtained a qualification of Level 4 or above by 2020.

In the past 12 years, unionlearn has trained more than 25,000 ULRs.

In 2009/10 almost 250,000 working people were involved in a learning opportunity delivered through their union, and supported by unionlearn. Of these, 5,000 were enrolled in degree level courses, 22,000 enrolled on Level 3, 40,000 on level 2.

A range of resources and publications on HE for ULRs and employers can be found at http://www.unionlearn.org.uk/advice/index.cfm?mins=162

A number of case studies: Raising Awareness of Higher Learning: Finance Sector (Unite); Introduction to higher learning: Kent Fire and Rescue Service (FBU); Negotiating time off for higher learning (PCS); Open University (NHS/ Unison); Online Higher Learning: Education Sector (ATL); Tailor-Made Higher Learning: Hillingdon Hospital Trust (Unison);From Skills for Life to Higher Learning (POA); Foundation Degrees(RCM, Unite); Distance Higher Learning (CWU); Bite-size Higher Learning (FBU) and Trade Unions' Higher Learning (Southampton City College, Unite) are available from Sean Ruddy [email protected]

All unionlearn press releases can be found at www.unionlearn.org.uk

Media enquiries:
Frances Rafferty T: 020 7079 6950 M: 07827 813439 E: [email protected]
James Asser T: 020 7079 6942 M: 07769 706104 E: [email protected]

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