On Monday (19th October), the TUC launched a new campaign, Save Union Learning, to persuade the government to drop proposals to end the Union Learning Fund (ULF).

Unions were told of the proposal to scrap the £12 million annual fund in a letter from the Department for Education.

The TUC says it was ”stunned” to receive the letter as there had been no prior discussion or consultation on the future of the fund, it is achieving its targets, is supported by employers, and it provides a net gain to the Exchequer.

The letter arrived just days after the Prime Minister gave a speech on the importance of skills in the government’s plans to ‘build back better’ (29 September).

He promised a Lifetime Skills Guarantee, and to “give people of all ages the means and the confidence to switch and get the skills they need”.


Support for Save Union Learning

The campaign is launched with backing from employers, unions and education and training organisations.

Major employers supporting the campaign include Tesco, Heathrow, Tata Steel, Hinkley Point C and Arla Foods.

The campaign has the backing of Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the RSA, who chaired the government’s Review of Modern Employment, which reported in 2017.

It is also backed by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and other lifelong learning experts, including the Workers Educational Association and the Learning and Work Institute.


Union learning – a success story

The Union Learning Fund was set up in 1998 and has been supported by governments of all parties. It increases access to learning and training in workplaces, brokered by unions. In 2019-20, it supported 200,000 learners – both union members and non-members.

These learners undertake a wide range of learning and training related to work, including basic literacy and numeracy, ICT skills, ESOL, apprenticeships and traineeships, vocational training, and ongoing professional development.

Union learning gets working people into skills training they would not otherwise have access to. That’s because 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 Union Learning Fund is subject to regular independent evaluation. The most recent evaluation (2018) found:


Skills growth

  • 68% of learners with no previous qualifications got a qualification
  • 47% with entry or level 1 qualifications got a higher qualification
  • 80% said they gained skills that could transfer to a new job

Employer benefits

  • 53% of employers saw an increase in employees gaining qualifications
  • 77% said that union learning had a positive effect on their workplaces
  • 68% said unions could reach and inspire reluctant learners to engage in training

Value for money

  • For every £1 spent on the Union Learning Fund:
    • workers gain £7.60 through better pay
    • employers gain £4.70 through higher productivity
    • the Exchequer gains £3.57 from welfare savings and revenue gains
  • The Union Learning Fund delivers an estimated net contribution to the economy of more than £1.4 billion as a result of a boost to jobs, wages and productivity


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


Emma Taylor, Tesco People Director (Tesco stores Ltd UK & ROI) said:

“We have always been a supporter of lifelong learning, and the ‘Checkout Learning’ campaign that Tesco and Usdaw developed together 15 years ago has now benefited more than 43,000 learners. Usdaw and Unionlearn are able to reach colleagues that other schemes would not, and we look forward to continuing our work together.”


Louise Dobson, Learning and Development Lead, Hinkley Point C, said:

“The Hinkley Point C Project is very supportive of the concept and application of Unionlearn initiatives. The introduction of a Lifelong Learning Agreement, signed jointly between our signatory Unions and key employers on the Project, emphasises the important role that Union education and training contributes to supporting the development needs and career aspirations across a diverse workforce. The withdrawal of the Union Learn Funding will have a detrimental impact on the ability to offer quality flexible learning and development solutions.”


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.”


Chris Jaques, HR Director, Tata Steel, said:

“Tata Steel has always been a great advocate of developing the skills and competencies of its people throughout their careers in the company. The support of steel industry Trades Union partners and in particular the Union Learning Fund has, for many years, provided a fantastic additional resource. 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.”


Peter Cheese, Chief Executive, CIPD said:

"Workplace training is critical for individuals and organisations to support growth and productivity, yet UK business has been falling behind. The Union Learning Fund has played an important role and has demonstrated its success at reaching organisations and individuals who would not otherwise have engaged in learning. It has never been more important to ensure that we are investing in the skills and capabilities of our workforce, and this fund should continue to be supported to play its part in this vital agenda."


Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive, RSA, said:

“Lifelong learning has a key role to play in helping us close the UK’s productivity gap with our competitors. Workplace learning is a big part of this – and union learning has proven to be brilliantly effective. It’s a unique way of switching people onto learning that cannot be replaced. It depends on the trust and support of a workmate who has been trained as a specialist learning rep. If the funding goes it will be a tremendous loss, harming business and the economy just when training and skills are needed for our economic recovery.”


Simon Parkinson, Chief Executive, Workers Educational Association, said:

“We were surprised and disappointed to hear that the Union Learning Fund could be cut. With so many at risk of redundancy and increasing competition for any new jobs, adult education provides a lifeline for those seeking to gain skills that could help them keep a secure foothold in the labour market. Far from cutting programmes which support workplace skills, this is the time to invest more in them. The Union Learning Fund has made a significant contribution to the nation’s productivity for many years and the evidence shows it is good value for money. The WEA has been proud to be part of the Bridges to Learning programme, in partnership with the Union Learning Fund, which has helped thousands to take up work-related training. We believe that programmes such as this are central to the economic recovery.”


Stephen Evans, Chief Executive of Learning and Work Institute, said:

"Independent evaluations have shown that the Union Learning Fund delivers real value not just for workers, but for employers and the economy as a whole. It is particularly effective at reaching workers with lower levels of qualifications – workers who can really benefit from learning opportunities, but who are currently least likely to take part. At a time of rapid change in the labour market, when more adults than ever before will have to re-train and upskill, it is right that we should be investing more in skills. Union learning plays an important role which is complementary to, but different from that played by our FE colleges and other providers. We hope the government will re-consider its decision and continue to work with unions and employers to level up skills."


Social media

The TUC is calling on people who have benefitted from union learning to share their story on social media – as text or video – with the hashtag #SaveUnionLearning.