From the TUC

Are trade unions the ghost in the UK learning system?

13 Jun 2011, By

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.

GUEST POST: Ian Stewart in a former TGWU officer and Labour MP. You can download his short paper “Trade Unions – The Ghost in the UK Lifelong Learning System” in Adobe pdf format.

3 Responses to Are trade unions the ghost in the UK learning system?

  1. KeithmooreULR
    Jun 14th 2011, 9:49 am

    Union learning is very much part of the UK learning system!
    It’s weakest link is getting that information to the workforce in the first place.
    The Union structure means that traditionally information comes via the shop stewards of that workplace. We need to educate them more on the value of whats available. Secondly they may perceive it’s down to them to to be the ULR as well, and they may then decide not to take action as it’s yet another task to do on top of the day job. Employers still have very little idea about the rights of an ULR.
    We need to break the traditional ways of communicating to our members via the chain of command. I think Union project workers can influence greatly as can TUC learning officers.
    We also need to promote using social media more also to break down barriers.

  2. Joe Bailey
    Jun 17th 2011, 8:50 pm

    If I was contemplating a topic for a PHD.
    It would be why are the TUC and the trade unions are not interested in the way Tesco collect information on their customers? Having said that I suspect the TUC would have a policy roadblock quickly arranged or some form of obfuscation. I am not an academic.

    I am speaking as the bloke in the street.

    The BBC, BT the utilities say they welcome feedback from their fee payers and customers. Do they really?
    The trouble with talking at people is that eventually trade union members will walk away.

    Having in the past read TUC documents. There seemed to be a running theme identified by academics that middle management are hostile to training middle management think all the only employees worthy of education and training are themselves.

    TUC documents that deal with education and training (some of these documents are not available in text only format. (TUC Policy) They do tend to have numbers on pages, which is helpful.)

    These glowing reports (they are usually light on numbers) usually tell the world that the TUC are pleased to announce that continuous improvement gradient.

    I have not seen an attempted costing break down in terms of global cost.

    Where do the academic ask is the learner’s autonym evaluated as part of the process?
    Not even a statistic never mind an individual leaning account.

    (There is at present a TUC IIP another glowing report on the way?)

    I am reminded of the old saying bureaucracy talks to bureaucracy.

  3. Stephen
    Jun 29th 2011, 7:14 pm

    Doesn’t sound like a particularly taxing PhD.