Co-investment in Workplace Learning: a union-led initiative.

Bert Clough CERIC
Bert Clough
– Visiting Professor, CERIC

There was scant reference to adult skills in the Conservative Party’s manifesto which indicates its low priority in the new Government’s agenda. Warning signs were already emerging during the last year of the Coalition Government. In his letter to the Skills Funding Agency, the former BIS Secretary of State, Vince Cable, outlined that £770m of adult skills funding in 2015-16 will be set aside for apprenticeships. This however means that the bulk of the overall cut to the Adult Skills Budget will fall on non-apprenticeship provision. The Skills Funding Agency has estimated that this could amount to cuts of up to 24% for non-apprenticeship learning over just one year.

The University and College Union (UCU) has warned that these cuts would hit vulnerable learners hardest, with millions of people who missed out on qualifications at school or those who need to retrain missing out if the cuts go ahead in 2015/16. The Secretary of State has stated that colleges and learning providers will thus need to consider how to lever in additional funding directly from employers and individuals.

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills has stated that pressures on public and private finances mean that traditional models of investment in skills are unsustainable. Private investment in training has been steadily declining and in England, part-time learning has fallen significantly. With the public purse likely to be even more constrained in the future, employers and employees will need to invest more time and resources in their development and in new ways of working. Conditions are required to support greater employer and personal investment in skills (Growth Through People, UKCES, 2014).

These conditions will not just magically appear. There needs to be a framework to support and deliver co-investment. Trade unions have been increasingly involved in promoting and helping to deliver co-investment in work –based employee development and lifelong learning. It involves establishing structures to pool funding and “in-kind” contributions such as facilities and time off to study by employer, union, provider and employee. The pioneer project was the Ford EDAP scheme established as a result of a collective agreement in 1987 which opened up a significant demand for lifelong learning. It has been remarkably sustainable, mainly due to it being underpinned by robust collective bargaining and run by the company’s unions.

The last Labour government provided some kick-start funding to the TUC’s learning and skills arm – Unionlearn- for developing union-led co-investment models known as “collective learning funds”. They were piloted in 23 sites across the North West and the East Midlands 2008-10 and managed by the TUC Unionlearn regions. The evaluation by CERIC revealed very positive outcomes not just quantitatively in terms of the learning opportunities taken up and workplace learning centres established, but in increasing union visibility and credibility over learning and initiating partnership working between unions and management through joint union/management learning committees https://www.unionlearn.org.uk/publications/research-paper-13-co-investing-workforce-development

A key issue for the unions has been to avoid displacement to ensure that any expansion of learning activity through CLFs does not bring about a reduction in learning investment by the employer or the state. CLFs need to fund additional learning activity that would not have been previously funded.

A follow-up project Call to Learn was established in the South West region. The project was on a smaller scale and covered five workplaces. These comprised of three manufacturing companies, a DWP workplace and a maternity hospital. The pilots had to be evaluated relatively early in the pilots’ life and any findings were therefore suggestive and unable to fully quantify learning outcomes. Nevertheless, it provides useful information on how the pilots were set up and reveals some innovatory approaches https://www.unionlearn.org.uk/publications/call-learn-tuc-unionlearn-south-west-collective-action-lifelong-learning

Like the previous two regional projects there was a common framework to the pilots such as a learning needs analysis, learning agreement, equality and diversity process, joint learning committee and a collective learning fund constitution.

There was a strong commitment to promote equality and diversity which was a specific requirement of the project and each pilot had robust procedures in place to meet that object. This included matching equality surveys with learning  surveys and with the learning committee taking any necessary action to target under-represented groups in the workforce.

Challenges included lack of ULR and management time to run the funds and no paid study time for the learner.

Successfully negotiating paid time off to study is often problematic due to effects on productivity but one workplace had managed to get round this. The union had negotiated an innovative arrangement whereby the workers studied free ESOL courses outside work time at a learning centre in a location where most of them resided. The company then paid them overtime for two hours of study after or before their normal shift working.

An important factor in the robustness of the three manufacturing pilots was the support of two project officers funded through a GMB Union Learning Fund regional project. There was also significant regional PCS support in the DWP pilot.

With minimal employer support for the learning activity in the maternity hospital pilot the union learning reps (ULRs) were running activities on an ad hoc basis but in a very innovative way. Activities even included funding a community choir ( linking learning with well-being) with some of the courses making small profits and ensuring that the CLF would break even on funding activities overall.

In some of the workplaces, it was the union that decided on and directly brokered provision with the college or private provider. In other cases the union had persuaded management to change the provider to better meet the needs of the learners. In two workplaces it was the ULRs who were actually running IT clubs.

There were positive messages from both unions and management in all the pilots that the arrangements should continue after the Call to Learn project ended.

In view of the rapidly diminishing public funding for workforce development there is an urgent need for models of co-investment to be mainstreamed in VET policy with the government actively promoting them in both unionised and non-unionised workplaces.

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