TUC warns government against scrapping “vital” in-work training fund

Andrew Kersley

The TUC has urged the government to reverse plans to end the Union Learning Fund (ULF) as the union federation says the in-work training scheme will be a “vital plank of building back better” after coronavirus.

Launching a new campaign to save the ULF today, after the government revealed plans to cut off funding in March 2021, the TUC declared that ending the scheme would harm Britain’s post-Covid economy.

The campaign to save the programme, which contributes more to the Treasury each year than it takes out, has received the support of major employers such as Tesco and Arla, plus TUC members Unite and the FBU.

Reacting to the government decision to stop providing grant funding, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Union learning has helped millions of working people improve their skills and progress at work in the last 20 years.

“From basic skills and helping people learn English to retraining for the jobs of the future, union learning transforms lives. And it’s the Heineken of adult learning – it gets to people other approaches cannot reach.

“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 rebuild the economy. Union learning is a national asset and a vital plank of building back better. The Prime Minister must reject this proposal.”

The ULF was set up in 1998 to offer increased access to learning and training in workplaces, brokered by trade unions. Last year, it supported 200,000 learners – both union members and non-members.

But the government announced plans to cut the £12m annual fund earlier this month, just days after Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered a speech stressing the importance of training to help combat the damage of Covid.

An independent evaluation of the scheme in 2018 found it had given 68% of learners a qualification after having never had one previously, and that it had offered 80% of users skills that could transfer to a new job.

The University of Exeter report on the scheme found that 53% of employers saw an increase in employees with qualifications, 77% said union learning had a positive impact on their workplaces and 68% said unions could reach otherwise reluctant employees.

For every £1 spent on the ULF workers gained £7.60 through better pay, employers gained £4.70 through higher productivity and the government gained £3.57 through welfare savings and revenue increases.

The TUC’s new campaign to stop the government from cutting the Union Learning Fund has been backed by officials from several trade unions, including the Labour-affiliated Fire Brigades Union and Unite the Union.

FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said: “At a time when the country is on the brink of mass unemployment… it would be ludicrous to cut one of the most effective programmes allowing workers to expand their skillset.

“For 22 years, the Union Learning Fund has provided crucial training and guidance to thousands of firefighters. For injured and retiring firefighters, it’s a vital means of gaining new skills with courses offered in digital skills, health and social care, and fitness and nutrition.

“The programme makes life-changing improvements to learner’s income and huge productivity benefits for employers, all while providing a lucrative return on investment for the Treasury.”

Unite director of education Jim Mowatt added: “The plan to axe the scheme is short-sighted and self-defeating when there is a national crisis, as businesses close and companies shed jobs.

“The announcement from the education department seems to contradict the prime minister’s own promise that funding will be available for everyone to get a qualification at level 3 – the equivalent of A-levels – through a national skills fund.

“A skilled workforce is the lifeblood that will spearhead the UK’s economic future in this new and changing global economy when education and training will be at a premium.

“That’s why the Union Learning Fund should remain as an important pillar of the UK’s overall training programme – we call for the proposal to axe the fund to be rescinded immediately.”

Paddy Lillis, leader of shopworkers’ trade union Usdaw, said he was “absolutely stunned” by the announcement that the ULF would end. He urged the government to reconsider and urged workers to back the TUC campaign.

The government’s plan to cut the ULF comes despite the Prime Minister stressing the importance of retraining and reskilling amid Covid-19. He has launched a new adult education scheme, the ‘lifetime skills guarantee’.

The new adult and lifelong learning scheme will offer a fully funded college course to adults in England without an A-level or equivalent qualification. Only those aged under 23 currently qualify for a fully-funded qualification of this type.

Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green commented at the time that the government’s proposals were just a “mix of reheated old policies” and highlighted that funding for the new training would not be made available until next April.

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