Lifelong learning: they're making it work

Trade unions, employers and the Government are united: continuing education is a Good Thing. Ben Russell reports on Learning at Work Day
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The Independent Online
Education used to be something that was done to people before they got a job. Children trotted off to school; teenagers went to university or learnt a skill. Eventually all were slotted into work, full of knowledge and ready to apply it to the real world.

No more, say employers, lecturers and even union leaders. The key phrase of the far-sighted Nineties workplace is lifelong education. People have to keep topping up their skills and burnishing their knowledge to keep pace with the changing international market-place.

Ministers speak zealously about the need for cultural change, to encourage people to believe that they can, and should, constantly return to the classroom to create opportunities for themselves. And the organisers of this year's Adult Learners' Week have declared today Learning at Work Day, to further their campaign to make workplace education a reality for millions.

Captains of industry acknowledge the need to maintain and improve a highly qualified workforce, while the employees themselves, and their union representatives, clamour for more support for education at work.

Margaret Murray, head of the Confederation of British Industry's learning and skills group, says: "The bottom line is, if you are going to be competitive you have to improve constantly. In practice, such improvement equates with constant learning by employees. Against that economic imperative, there has been a sea change within British business towards far more learning on the job."

The so-called "virtual universities" and training schemes operated by major companies such as Unipart, Rover and British Aerospace have become models for government initiatives such as the University for Industry, designed to bring training and general education within the reach of staff in offices and factories. Innovative firms have made education an integral part of work, allowing staff to progress from basic training through to undergraduate- and even postgraduate-level education and research.

The commercial emphasis has been on job-related skills, but some companies, such as Ford, have encouraged employees to invest time in general education, arguing that any measures that promote learning at work should be supported.

Adult education campaigners are anxious to stress that the battle for better workplace facilities is not won. Bill Lucas, chief executive of the Campaign for Learning, says support from employers is variable, although he sees "a growing trend towards people realising that learning at work is in the interests of their business".

Government-sponsored research published today by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace) finds that unions can play a key role in initiatives such as the University for Industry. For decades unions have been central players in traditional adult education. They have helped many figures in the labour movement through to university, most famously the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. Alastair Thomson, co-author of the Niace report, says: "There is a huge role for trade unions if they have the confidence and the flexibility to take advantage of what is happening."

The Niace study, which highlights examples of co-operation between employers and unions, shows that education is becoming as much of a bargaining chip on the negotiating table as pay and hours. Trade unions are interested in promoting courses to members and persuading employers to make facilities - and time - available for study.

Last year the Trades Union Congress launched 10 pilot projects to promote training within companies. TUC officials are keen to act as brokers, setting up learning centres in workplaces and making links between unions, colleges and universities.

Union initiatives cross the divide between white- and blue-collar jobs. They include links between the Engineers and Managers Association and the Open University to provide a specialist MBA course, and a project run by the banking union Bifu and the bank clearing giant Unisys to offer staff undergraduate-level computer courses at the University of East London.

Sarah Perman, the TUC's head of education, says that initiatives are not simply aimed at improving the basic skills of workers. "We are trying to focus on those who have been left out of learning, but also make sure everybody has the opportunity to go into education, and we hope the University for Industry can help. We don't just see this as being at the low-skill end of the spectrum."

The public service union Unison will sign a partnership deal with Brighton University tomorrow to offer adult education courses to the university's non-academic staff. It is a model the union has already developed for support staff in further education and local government.

The scheme was launched in 1993 and now offers education to around 1,000 people every year. The union runs its own introductory courses - Return to Learn - aimed at staff who missed out on an education the first time round.

Steve Williams, one of the architects of the Brighton deal, says: "There's a general waking up among employers to the fact that probably around a third or their staff have never had any training, and have been cut off."

But Margaret Murray, of the CBI, thinks all employees have to be ready to adapt, whether they are unskilled workers or highly paid, highly educated professionals.

"A business can't survive any longer unless its employees are all learning. That's why we talk about the `learning business' as the way forward."

Help lines

Professional associations and trade unions can help with training and careers advice.

Ask your managers whether they can support you with the cost of courses or offer time off for study. Some organisations, such as the car giant Ford, support education which has no link to work because they believe that all learning is valuable.

Don't limit yourself to local courses. Colleges and universities can offer long-distance education. The Open University is a well-known example, but even Oxford now runs courses over the Internet.

A national helpline, 0800 100 900, gives information on courses in your area.

`I'm always popping down to our IT centre'

Dr Kim Polgreen is group environment manager at Unipart. Like other employees, she has been through a set of courses about the firm run by its internal training arm, the Unipart U. She has also improved her German and has taken information technology courses through the U.

"There's a feeling that it's OK to do courses; indeed, it's positively encouraged. We are urged to do a certain number of days' training each year, so when you have an appraisal you can see where you'd like to go. The best thing is probably having the time to do it.

"I did a German course because I wanted the option of work abroad as part of my present job. I've done specific courses relating to information technology; one was an introduction to the Internet; another was a short course learning to understand Lotus Notes software.

"From what I know of other places the availability of courses here is high. You can do the courses on site and there are people available to train you. I always come back enthused.

"I also teach, raising awareness of environmental best practice.

"Because the U crosses all companies within the group, it's ideal."

Marie Bird, 41, enrols in October at Sheffield Hallam University, where she is a cleaner. She began her adult education under the university's Jumpstart programme, which encourages support staff to learn on the job, and has just completed a one-year foundation course at the Northern College near Barnsley.

"I didn't think about going on a course until somebody said, `If you do it, other people will get involved', because my colleagues were sceptical. It was a 26-week IT course and we all enjoyed it. It was brilliant.

"We had a three-hour evening session each week and had a taster of all the different computer applications. Then I moved to a TUC computer course at Sheffield College.

"I've done other courses - desktop publishing, for example, and industrial relations.

"Through my connections with Jumpstart I heard about scholarships at the Northern College. I never thought about myself at first, but I was told I was an ideal candidate

"Now they have accepted me at Sheffield Hallam on a historical studies course. I will still be working for the university. They are trying to find me a job which will be flexible enough to combine with my studies.

"I left school with nothing; my parents were ill. It was not intelligence that let me down. Both my partner and I are great readers.

"A couple of years ago, if anybody had said I would be submitting 2,000- word essays I would not have believed them."

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