Scrapping a “vital” work-based education fund would harm Britain’s post-coronavirus recovery, according to a coalition of trade unions and employers urging the government to reverse cuts to its support for the union learning fund (ULF).
Although the government’s annual funding for the programme is only £12m, the coalition led by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) argues that it helps more than 200,000 workers a year to get access to education and training that they would struggle to receive elsewhere.
The group lobbying to restore the funding includes the TUC and its members, as well as major employers such as Tesco, Heathrow airport, Arla Foods and Tata Steel.
Paula Stannett, Heathrow airport’s chief people officer, said: “The announcement that funding support for the union learning fund is to be ended is as disappointing as it is perplexing. The unprecedented impact that this pandemic is having on jobs across the UK means there has never been a more critical time to invest in upskilling. We urge the government to rethink its decision.”
The ULF was established in 1998, and is administered by UnionLearn, the TUC’s education and skills arm, under an agreement with the Department for Education (DfE), which directs the learning activities to be supported by the fund. It offers workplace access to literacy, language and maths classes as well as technology skills, apprenticeships and professional development.
The TUC said it had been “stunned” to receive notification from the DfE of the impending cut, without any consultation over the fund’s future, only a few days after Boris Johnson promised that a lifetime skills guarantee would be part of the government’s “build back better” strategy.
“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,” said Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary.
“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.”
The most recent evaluation of the programme found that two-thirds of those with no previous qualifications gained a qualification after taking part, and 80% overall said their new skills helped them get another job. It calculated that for every £1 spent, workers using the ULF gained £7.60 in better pay, while employers gained £4.70 through higher productivity, and the Treasury benefited by £3.57 from savings and revenue gains.
“At a time when the country is on the brink of mass unemployment, and when ministers themselves are talking about the need for upskilling and retraining, it would be ludicrous to cut one of the most effective programmes allowing workers to expand their skills,” said Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union.
“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.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “We have taken the decision not to continue to provide grant funding to UnionLearn in the next financial year. We will instead 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.”
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