Why we need to know what union members think about learning at work
So, what do we know know about what workers or industry and union leaders think about union support for lifelong and workplace learning in the UK? Do all workers know what Union Learning Representatives are and what they do? Do workers who have access to learning at work know how their learning is funded? Are they aware of trade union, government and employer support for learning? Is learning in their workplace sustainable in the current economic and political climate? And if not, are workers concerned about this? These questions have formed the basis of my PhD research project established in 2005.
Trade Unions were originally set up to defend workers terms and conditions of employment. However, a lesser known fact is that for more than 100 years, unions have provided Trade Union Education; normally negotiating and basic literacy and numeracy skills. In recent years trade unions are increasingly; negotiating for, supporting, and sometimes providing, workplace learning. My research attempts to explore and understand the level of worker awareness of the evolving, but sometimes almost hidden, role of unions supporting workplace learning.
Are then trade unions the ghost in the UK learning system?
For many people in the UK, their only learning takes place at or through their workplace. Why then, is there is a poverty of research into what workers know or think about workplace learning and the evolving role of unions in supporting and promoting it?
My research seeks to find out whether trade union involvement in such learning really makes a difference to those who receive it, and if it does, how it makes a difference.
The reason I am interested in exploring these issues is pretty straight forward. I am myself a product of the Trade Union Education System. I know that learning is the key to unlocking opportunity for many workers and their families. Whilst we can acknowledge increased government support for workplace learning over recent years, we do not yet fully understand the impact of past government interventions. Nor can we divine the current coalition government’s intentions for the future. Having been in government I know that continued support for workplace learning will be a matter of heated future political debate.
Therefore, the relevance of my research is that it seeks to understand workers’ current views, by asking them about their own learning journey. The research seeks to inform future policy development leading to more strategic and sustainable Learning at Work. My short paper “Trade Unions – The Ghost in the UK Lifelong Learning System” describes the research and places the subject in an historical, political and industrial context.
I have over the years worked closely with the TUC’s unionlearn and my PhD research outlined in this paper has informed and prompted the unionlearn decision to commission research along the same lines through the Working Lives Research Institute.