TUC demands U-turn on scrapping Union Learning Fund ahead of spending review

Elliot Chappell

The TUC has urged the government to use its spending review this week to U-turn on the decision to scrap support for the Union Learning Fund after a report showed that the economy gets nearly £13 back for every £1 spent on training.

Responding to research by the University of Exeter, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “If ministers want to level-up productivity and skills across the regions they need to engage and support hard-to-reach learners.”

The university report found that for every £1 spent on union-supported learning and training, the economy gets £12.87 back, with £7.56 of that coming from the boost to workers’ wages and employment prospects.

The paper also showed that employers see a return of £5.31 as a result of employees becoming more skilled and productive, while the Treasury sees a return of £3.60 for every £1 invested in union-led training.

Commenting ahead of the Chancellor’s spending review on Wednesday, O’Grady said: “Union learning transforms lives and brings huge benefits to workplaces and the economy. It is a rare success story in adult skills.

“If ministers want to level-up productivity and skills across the regions, they need to engage and support hard-to-reach learners. Union learning has a fantastic track record of getting people back into learning…

“It’s not too late for the government to change its mind. Tomorrow’s spending review is an opportunity to find the funding union learning needs to continue. I urge ministers not to turn their back on this brilliant learning scheme.”

The government announced plans to cut the £12m annual fund last month, just days after the Prime Minister delivered a speech stressing the importance of training to help limit the damage of the Covid crisis.

The funding allocated last year has been used to support 200,000 workers into training and education, and the report has argued that it can play a key role in ‘levelling up’ skills and productivity as the UK recovers from the pandemic.

Author of the report and head of regional impact at the University of Exeter Andrew Dean said: “This analysis shows the significant economic and personal impacts the Union Learning Fund makes every year.”

He added that the ULF can “successfully deliver the government’s industrial strategy” by “helping parts of the country with the lowest wages and productivity to level up”, which Johnson has pledged to do in government.

An independent evaluation of the Union Learning Fund in 2018 found it had given a qualification to 68% of learners who had not had one previously, and that it had offered 80% of users skills that could transfer to a new job.

The latest official figures showed that the proportion of employers not providing any training at all increased from 34% in 2017 to 39% in 2019, and that the proportion of staff not receiving any training increased from 38% to 40% over the same period.

Former Labour MP and shadow minister for higher education, further education and skills Gordon Marsden described the decision to scrap the fund as an “act of vindictive anti-union spitefulness from the Education Secretary”.

In a comment piece for LabourList, he wrote: “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.”

The fund, which is provided by the Department for Education, can only be spent on learning and associated activities and helps union members and non-members alike access training and learning opportunities.

The TUC has estimated that the fund, which was initially set up as a national scheme in 1998 under the then Labour government, has helped 2.5 million learners since it was first established.

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