Scrapping the Union Learning Fund is a spiteful act of economic vandalism

Gordon Marsden

‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, as the saying goes. Certainly don’t scrap it. But that’s what Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is planning to do to the Union Learning Fund (ULF) in an act of spectacular vandalism for our economy and the life chances of hundreds of thousands of people. ULF was set up as a national scheme in 1998, one of the first acts of the newly elected Labour government. It is currently helping around 200,000 learners in the workplace across England. Its record of success in outcomes has held good ever since then.

At a time when the government has struggled to make a major dent in the millions who lack basic skills, the ULF is playing a crucial role in getting both younger and older workers on a ladder of progression to acquiring Levels 2 and 3. That will be critical in trying to safeguard their future employability.

It will also enable them to have better chances of retraining for new and better jobs and livelihoods, at a time when the Covid pandemic is scything through many thousands of existing jobs. The pandemic is turbocharging existing trends for the 2020s, where automation and digitalisation will mean many existing jobs and workplaces will change rapidly or no longer exist.

The 44,000 Union Learning reps across England would be a critical part of that renewal. They could be huge enablers and persuaders for any Green New Deal – particularly the ambitious one that Ed Miliband and Anneliese Dodds has just unveiled for Labour – giving people the confidence and tools to gain new skills for retrofitting businesses, homes, schools and raising green standards in the public sector, including the expansion of solar power.

The ULF also has a key role to play here and now, as the economic consequences of Covid are consigning so many workers to furlough, joblessness and reduced hours. In the case of apprentices, many are uncertain about being able to complete their training due to lockdown, their employers going bust or unable to sustain those apprenticeships – not least in service sectors and areas with high numbers of small and medium-sized enterprises.

The ULF and the TUC have already started support of these categories of workers with their Learning At Home online campaign designed to reach furloughed, home-working or redundant trade unionists. Current figures for unemployment and claimant counts show how badly this support is needed. Having been Blackpool South’s MP for over two decades until last year, I know how critical ULF programmes, such as those operated out of our local centre for the unemployed, can be.

Statistics released in September showed that nearly one in ten people of working age were jobless in Blackpool, three times the national average, topping the national tables along with Liverpool and Hull. One in every five young people aged 18 to 24 in Blackpool South were having to claim benefits. These figures are likely to worsen on the back of the Tier 3 restrictions and the latest national lockdown, which will hit many small businesses in the town, especially in the visitor economy.

In the post-Covid world, we can expect to see the increased importance of logistics, online working, digital skills, and of course of the health and social care sector – not just in the NHS but care staff in the care homes and home support sector – to be vital elements in the 2020s economy. Without the ability to progress, workers who previously could have benefitted from ULF Learning Rep support could find themselves excluded from a ladder to those jobs.

The dismal record of government departments since 2010 in tackling low skills rates and learning for workers stands in stark contrast to the achievements of ULF. The take-up of basic qualifications – English and Maths to Level 2 – declined by 30% from 2013 to 2018. After the government scrapped grants in FE and replaced them in 2013 with ‘Advanced Learner Loans’ for people over 24 studying at Levels 3 and 4, year on year I highlighted as shadow skills minister that more than half of them of them were not taken up, with nearly £1bn of funding sent back by education ministers, unused, to the Treasury.

By contrast, ULF-supported projects covering a range of qualifications for workers have consistently exceeded the targets. This is evidenced in the detailed independent analysis of ULF success in outcomes carried out by the University of Exeter, which recently calculated that there had been an overall benefit for employers and individuals of £1.4bn in return for Unionlearn’s £12m annual grant. Just in this last year, ULF helped 37,000 learners to take up Level 2 training courses in English and Maths, a 48% increase on the 25,000 target set them by the Department of Education.

ULF programmes have a huge positive impact on Skills for Life. Over two thirds of participants who obtained qualifications under ULF had had no previous ones – and four out of five of them said they had developed skills to make them more effective in their current job or seeking a new one. The annual £12m from the government to ULF that the Education Secretary says he will scrap from next March currently levers in an additional £54m from employers, unions and training providers. Much if not all of that extra funding is likely to be lost.

This will come into effect just when the government’s much vaunted, if flawed, Lifetime Skills Guarantee, which will allow all adults to study for a free first Level 3 qualification, is set to start in spring 2021. The huge irony here has not been lost on the TUC as they and others – including Labour – campaign against the ULF decision. Just this week, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has said that the new entitlement will be a ‘paper promise’ that, bereft of support from Union Learning reps (available incidentally to both union members and non-members), only small numbers are likely to use.

Without that enabling support from the ULF, not only will tens of thousands of workers miss out on skills to help them keep their jobs now, but for future ones in the 2020s. Many of those new jobs will come in self-employment, which is why the ULF would be a critical factor in signposting workers to the enabling skills and qualifications that will benefit their future careers, not just the short-term needs (however valuable) of their current employers. Without the ULF, many workers will be unable to access self employment, co-operatives or small businesses, in jobs such as plumbers, electricians, builders, or in service sectors in health, social care and childcare, travel and the visitor economy.

That supportive role will be lost by the government clawing back the ULF’s £12m, which is chicken feed in Treasury terms or compared to the £100s of millions that the National Audit Office has shown the government has wasted on failed Covid personal protective equipment procurement. This was poignantly highlighted this week by Labour MP and former regional education officer for UNISON, Lilian Greenwood. She opened the Westminster Hall debate by saying:

“If someone thinks education is not for them, or struggles with reading and writing, numbers or using new technology, they might not want to tell their supervisor or someone in human resources, but they will talk to a colleague – someone like them – especially if they know that their colleague faces the same problem. That is the beauty of union learning: it is incredibly effective at engaging those hard-to-reach learners.”

The chamber was packed with MPs from all parts of the country, brimming over with examples of life changing achievements that they had seen and had come in their communities. Not a single Tory MP was there to speak in defence of Williamson’s decision, and Toby Perkins, my successor as shadow skills minister, powerfully reminded everyone there that only a couple of years ago the then skills minister Anne Milton had emphasised ULF’s crucial role as an external partner in the government’s National Training Scheme. As he said, there has been no attempt by government to have an impact assessment on the decision, and a long list of companies – including British Steel, Heathrow Airport, Make UK and Tesco – are opposing it.

In reality, it is an act of vindictive anti-union spitefulness from the Education Secretary, for which there should be no legitimate justification in 21st-century Britain. The government has no answer to the question Lilian Greenwood put to them in the debate: “Which organisation will replace Union Learn in engaging reluctant learners?”. The losers will not just be our economy, UK productivity and our communities over the next decade, but the aspirations of hundreds of thousands of people.

As someone who worked with hundreds of adult learners as an Open University tutor over two decades, I know just how valuable learning through life can be in opening up people’s lives, confidence and wellbeing, as well as the practical and job related benefits it can bring. It’s been a great privilege to see that again in the work of Union Learning reps, for whom it was an honour for me when I was shadow skills minister to hear their life stories and present awards at the annual UnionLearn event at the TUC.

The ‘right to learn’ is something that is deeply rooted in the trade union and labour movement – and it is something that I am proud we embedded in the Lifelong Learning Commission’s recommendations to the Labour Party last November. It has been echoed in the College of the Future report. UnionLearn is a key part of that aspiration – and we should continue to be relentless in the campaign to keep it so.

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