UNISON is calling on the government to pull back from its plan to scrap the Union Learning Fund in England, saying that the decision makes no sense.
The announcement that the fund would be scrapped came as the economy struggles to bounce back from the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, and as the Department of Education’s own findings revealed 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.
In Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, the devolved governments remain supportive of the fund. So do employers in England – including Tesco, Heathrow, British Steel, Arla Foods and Müller Milk, who have already given support to the TUC-led campaign to defend union learning.
For 20 years, the fund has been getting working people into skills training they’d otherwise have no access to, with courses directly relevant to the workplace, tailored to workers and supported by funding from the government.
Workplace learning is a massive success. Not just for employers – 77% say that union learning has a positive impact – but for the economy too. It is a success that delivers a return of £12.30 for every pound invested.
Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, explained: “Lifelong learning has a key role to play in helping us close the UK’s productivity gap with our competitors. Workplace learning is a big part of this – and union learning has proven to be brilliantly effective.
“It’s a unique way of switching people onto learning that cannot be replaced. It depends on the trust and support of a workmate who has been trained as a specialist learning rep. If the funding goes it will be a tremendous loss, harming business and the economy just when training and skills are needed for our economic recovery.”
UNISON members who take part in skills training not only widen their own horizons but improve the public services that they deliver as well.
For example, in Newcastle City branch, union learning rep Linda Slasor and branch education co-ordinator Wendy Aitman have established learning zones across the city council, allowing many traditionally excluded workers to improve their IT skills.
Ms Aitman explains: “For the most part, the learners haven’t been on a computer before and might not even have used a mouse before, so we get them started so they can access things like our weekly update for members and the council’s update for staff – a lot of them have been fascinated to see their payslips online.”
From digital to diplomas, from maths to mental health, the workers getting our country through the pandemic deserve the opportunity to access education. Now’s the time to invest in learners in our NHS and our care homes, in our police forces and our schools, in our local communities and everywhere else – not to scrap a scheme that makes it all happen.
Roger McKenzie, UNISON assistant general secretary with responsibility for organising, said: “The Union Learning Fund has made a massive contribution to raising basic skills levels across the country and, through that, makes a massive economic contribution.
“It’s not all about pounds, shillings and pence though. Many UNISON members have been able to read a bedtime story to their children or grandchildren for the very first time because of the Union Learning Fund. The government needs to change its mind and continue funding this vital work.”
Teresa Donegan, head of learning and organising at UNISON, says: “UNISON has always had a proud tradition of providing learning opportunities for our members. The Union Learning Fund allowed us to extend our reach to non-members as well, meaning that we could help thousands more public services workers improve their skills and knowledge.
“In councils, schools, hospitals, call centres and universities – to name only a few of the plethora of workplaces the Union Learning Fund reaches – union members and non-members alike have benefited.
“Subjects as fundamental as English, maths and IT open doors that may have remained locked since a worker left school.”
Sign the petition to halt the fund being cut here
If you are a union learning rep, please encourage your employer to support the #SaveUnionLearning campaign and write to the secretary of state, and encourage your members to share their stories here of how union learning has helped them.