'The most visible, tangible benefit'

Unite’s education director Jim Mowatt explains why the Union Learning Fund is so vital – and why it must be saved

Reading time: 7 min

Unite has joined the TUC, other trade unions and several major employers in a new campaign to save the Union Learning Fund (ULF), which was suddenly scrapped by the government without any consultation.  

The Department for Education made the announcement earlier this month that from next March it would be axing the £12m yearly fund for union learning delivered via unions through the workplace, just days after prime minister Boris Johnson gave a major speech about vocational training.

As part of his speech, the prime minister pledged a lifetime skills guarantee so that funding will be made available to any worker for an A-level equivalent qualification up to level 3, through a national skills fund. Unite and other unions said that axing the ULF totally flies in the face of this ambition.

‘National asset’

The Union Learning Fund was initially set up by the then-Labour government in 1998 and has given millions of workers over the last two decades access to vital education such as classes in maths, literacy and language, as well as tech skills, apprenticeships, professional development and much more in between.

With a very modest budget of only £12m each year, the ULF has an impressively wide reach – it gives about 200,000 people each year access to education and training which would in many cases not otherwise be available to them.

The TUC said it was “stunned” by the news that the government plans to axe the ULF. Commenting, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said, “Every year we hear from workers who couldn’t read confidently before union learning came into their life. Now they not only read their work emails, they can finally read their children a bedtime story.”

“The prime minister has been clear on the importance of improving skills to rebuilding the economy. Union learning is a national asset and a vital plank of building back better. The prime minister must reject this proposal.”

Unite director of education Jim Mowatt said he was likewise ‘shocked’ by the announcement.

“It’s only £12m out of a total fund of £36bn so it’s not like it’s going to be saving much from the government’s financial base,” Mowatt told UniteLIVE. “I think what’s happened is the government sends an edict saying we need cuts in every department – and they go for the low-hanging fruit, whatever is easiest to cut. The Union Learning Fund is an unfortunately an easy target.

“It’s very shocking though that this cut is happening now – this is the best time for a learning and skills agenda and the Union Learning Fund is part and parcel of that. It really doesn’t make any sense.”

Learn with Unite

Mowatt spoke of Unite’s ULF-funded programme, Learn with Unite, which has been enormously successful over the last two decades.

An independent survey of Unite’s learning project found that it offers a massive return on investment – every pound invested in the project generated a total economic return of £7.78 of which £4.77 accrues to individuals and £3.01 to employers.

The return to the exchequer from this learning is in excess of £94m – or £2.20 for each £1 spent.

Unite has more than 300 learning agreements with different employers, covering about 700,000 workers in total.

“One of Unite’s most notable learning agreements is a unique lifelong learning partnership with First Bus, one of the UK’s largest bus operators, “ Mowatt explained. “This partnership sees 200,000 visits each year to its many First Bus Learning Centres, where staff access hundreds of courses, both accredited and informal. This partnership has been going strong for 21 years!”

Jim highlighted that union learning has a range of functions – it can help workers upskill and further their careers, or it can help them change careers altogether. And union learning can also have benefits beyond the immediate workplace, too.

“Ford Motor Company, for example, had a programme called the Employment Development Action Plan (EDAP), offered through union learning. And can you guess what their most popular course was? Conversational Spanish. And why was that? People wanted to learn Spanish because that’s where they spent their holidays, in Spain.”

Jim also pointed to what he believes is the most valuable Unite learning project – the union’s United Migrant Workers Education Programme (UMWEP), which has offered free English as a Second Language (ESOL), ICT and arts classes to its migrant worker members for the last ten years.

The programme not only gives migrant workers the tools they need to excel in the workplace, it also gives them the confidence to challenge employer exploitation, an all-too common experience for migrant workers. What’s more, it helps migrant workers, who are often isolated, build networks and communities.

“When you move to another country, you don’t know anyone and you get quite lonely. When I was a teenager, I went to work at a chemical plant in Wandsworth, and I went to night school to get my A-levels. Why? Because I was far away from my friends and family and I was lonely. This is what union learning does – it creates that vital network in garages, factories and other workplaces across the UK.”

‘Union learning is about upskilling’

Mowatt vehemently opposes the reasoning given to cut the ULF by the Department for Education (DfE), which said today in statement that it would be “investing the money to directly support further education colleges, other training providers and our new £2.5bn national skills fund to help more people learn new skills”.

Mowatt said such reasoning was baseless.

“This make no sense because union learning targets a completely different demographic,” he noted. “Union learning is about upskilling people. There are lots of jobs that for various reasons will soon be disappearing and are not going to come back – for example supermarket shelf-stacking. These people need to be upskilled to have a future. 

“We’re mostly targeting adults who have a job but who aren’t going to go to a further education college, whose employer isn’t going to give them time off to get that further education.”

Whatever happens, Mowatt said that Unite will not let up in the fight to keep the Union Learning Fund – and Unite’s learning projects — going.

“Union learning has been a very positive development for us in the last twenty-two years – and at the heart of this are our union learning reps, the tens of thousands of ordinary women and men who volunteer their time to help their mates in work. Union learning is the most visible, tangible benefit that Unite gives its members.”

By Hajera Blagg

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