- Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change
Professor Mark Stuart, Drs Jo Cutter, Hugh Cook, Danat Valizade and Reece Garcia (CERIC, Leeds University Business School), along with Hilary Stevens from Marchmont Observatory, University of Exeter, worked on the report which was commissioned by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) unionlearn.
TUC unionlearn commissioned CERIC to conduct an evaluation of the Union Learning Fund (ULF) Rounds 15 (years 2012/13 to 2014/15) and Round 16 (2015/16), as well as the support role of unionlearn. This follows a number evaluations by CERIC of previous rounds of the ULF. This work had previously contributed to an impact case study for the Research Evaluation Framework.
The ULF was introduced by the then Labour government in 1998 under the auspices of the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) and unions have been invited to apply for funding to support learning projects on an annual (with some recent exceptions) basis since then.
The primary objective of the ULF is to develop the capacity of trade unions and Union Learning Representatives (ULRs) to work with employers, employees and learning providers to encourage greater take-up of learning in the workplace. Unionlearn is the learning section of the TUC and covers vocational training, adult learning and education for trade union representatives and regional officers and strategic support for national officers.
The objectives of the study were to evaluate:
- The extent to which ULF projects met their stated objectives
- The role of unionlearn in supporting delivery of the ULF programme
- The economic impact of ULF
- And the impact of ULF on learners, workplaces and unions.
For the evaluation, a survey of 2,550 learners took place in January to March 2016 and this included a follow-up of 228 learners previously surveyed in early 2015. A survey of 385 employers took place at the end of 2015 and this was compared to data from a similar survey undertaken by CERIC in 2010. Interviews were also conducted with 22 union officers and 12 non-union national stakeholders.
These are the main findings from the report:
- ULF projects have helped engage a large number of learners across a wide variety of learning opportunities.
- Over two-thirds of employers said unions were particularly effective at inspiring reluctant learners to engage in training and development.
- Half of employees said that their staff was more committed as a result of unions facilitating training and development opportunities.
- The ULF supports learning that is inclusive, engaging those less likely to have formal qualifications and those from minority ethnic backgrounds.
- It helps break down barriers to learning including negotiating time-off, access to learning resources and by building learner confidence through peer-to-peer support.
- ULF supports skills acquisition for current and future employability and a fifth of learners improved their qualification level. This rises to two-thirds of those with no prior qualifications gaining a qualification.
- Four in five employees said they had developed skills that they could transfer to a new job, while two in three said the new skills they had acquired made them more effective in their current job.
- Support structures (such as learning agreements and committees), bargaining arrangements and employer investment lead to better outcomes, but the proportion of employers reporting investment in these capacity building structures has declined since 2010.
- Some stakeholders recognise the unique role and value of unions and union learning, but knowledge of the detail of what unions do and achieve is limited.
- Just under half of employers agreed that learning activities would not have taken place without external union funding.
- The programme is more effectively managed as value for money has improved.
- There are significant benefits to the economy with every £1 invested in the ULF there is a return to the economy of £12.30. Union-led training 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.
- Union learning contributes to a wide range of organisational benefits and the perceived benefits derived from union learning appeared to have increased since 2010.
- Union learning also has positive benefits for unions with almost half of those learners that were non-members joining a union.
Following the evaluation, the team made five key recommendations:
1. Review the annual funding settlement to develop longer-term projects: One year projects have a limited effect on the wider efficacy of ULF projects. Success in attaining progression and higher level qualifications requires a longer-time frame.
2. Review the key policy imperatives in terms of skills targets: ULF projects exceeded target against key areas on functional skills and apprenticeships, however, an excessive focus on these areas is limiting for the ULF as a whole.
3. Improve and integrate project monitoring, reporting and project evaluation systems: The degree of monitoring of ULF projects has increased but this mainly reports outputs, not broader outcomes. Better quality data on learners and employers is needed to track outcomes and assess overall impact.
4. Enhance the sharing of intelligence and good practice across ULF projects:Much can be gained (and costs potentially saved) by sharing challenges, good practice and lessons learnt across projects.
5. Review the balance between output delivery and sustainability: While the policy emphasis on certain learning outcomes is understandable, the ability of unions to successfully deliver learning requires wider activity to take place such as training ULRs and developing workplace structures that help to ensure meaningful dialogue and engagement takes place with employers and providers.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University business school or the University of Leeds.