The Union Learning Fund may not sound exciting or dramatic but it’s in danger and we need to protect it. The highly successful ULF scheme has improved the lives of millions and given weight to the idea of self-determination, life-long learning, and reinforced the link between knowledge and opportunity. You’d be forgiven for thinking a government would want to support such an effective and beneficial scheme.
Not so. Our government, in all it’s hallowed wisdom, recently wrote to the TUC (Trades Union Congress) telling them it was withdrawing the £12million funding for the ULF. The TUC says it was “stunned” to receive this letter, which came out of the blue without any consultations or discussions. As reasonable people we might assume the government has to tighten the purse strings given the economic damage wreaked by Covid. Till we remember that our government is currently on a wildly reckless spending spree, granting hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of PPE contracts to companies which are so new the printer ink’s barely dried on their headed paper, or whose background so far removed from medical supplies even the most loyal, die-hard Tory would have difficulty in suspending their disbelief. In this extravagant spendthrift atmosphere £12million is small change, and the decision to withdraw ULF funding is damaging and incomprehensible. Let’s forever keep in mind this government has refused to fund free school meals for vulnerable children during the half-term; not even a ‘Let them eat cake,’ soundbite to cover their cruelty.
The ULF was set up in 1998; its objective was to support the idea of a learning society and to encourage the acquisition of skills and knowledge in the workplace. Its work is valued by employers across the country, such as Tata Steel, Tesco, Arla Foods, and many others. For over 22 years the ULF’s work has been regularly evaluated by independent experts, and shown to have increased people’s earnings, generated greater productivity for employers and increased contributions to the Exchequer.
“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.” Says Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC.
The stresses and insecurities of low paid work, the erosion of hope when people feel they have no way of changing their circumstances, and the constant, gnawing anxiety of trying to make ends meet, affect not just the worker but their families too. Low skills and lack of opportunities to learn and take training courses, trap workers and their families into precarious lives. I know of a case where a working mother had painstakingly saved up to buy a second-hand car, but in the end, was forced to sell it to pay household bills that were higher than usual. The idea that you can never move forward must lead to despair and anguish.
Since its inception, the ULF scheme has worked with employees through trade unions, employers and learning professionals.It’s helped millions of people acquire qualifications and thereby improve their earning potential. Such opportunities are precious to those at the lower end of the jobs market. Being able to get a job which pays even £10 a week more, makes a difference to a family’s budget and sense of coping.
The ULF’s success lies in the fact that ‘…union learning reps are trusted by their colleagues and by employers. And all union learning is directly relevant to the workplace, tailored to workers and supported by government funding. The governmental contribution referred to in this quote, is now ironically under threat.
Employers were as bewildered as the TUC by this bombshell from the government. “The announcement that funding support for the Union Learning Fund is to be ended is as disappointing as it is perplexing.” Said Paula Stannet, Heathrow Airport’s Chief People Officer.
Tata Steel’s Chris Jaques, HR Director commented: “This brilliant initiative allows us jointly to raise the capability of our workforce resulting in a more effective and productive organisation and also identify where it can be used to further enhance their skills and competencies. The loss of the Union Learning Fund would certainly be detrimental to achieving the pace of change and future workforce skills to which our industry aspires.”
The TUC is campaigning to save the ULF, and provides more information here: Campaign to Save the Union Learning Fund.
A petition has also been set up by the TUC. Please do support it.
In the final analysis, no society can function successfully, be democratic and prosperous, if its inequalities are unbridgeable. The doors to learning, training and developing competencies must remain open for all workers, particularly for those in low-paying jobs.