Open Eye: A united front to bridge the skills gap

A new partnership promises trade unionists discounted courses. Yvonne Cook reports
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Trade unions have long bargained for better pay and conditions for their members, but a new item is now high on their agenda - better education. This October, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Open University (OU) which means, among other things, a 10 per cent discount on entry-level university courses is available for all the TUC's 6.4 million trade union members.

The TUC's link-up with the OU is a development of unionlearn, a project which will have an annual turnover of £21m and a target of attracting a quarter of a million union members into education and training at all levels by 2010. It also aims to add value to union membership by being, as Brendan Barber, TUC General Secretary, said at the launch in May, "proof that being in a union makes a difference".

The link-up with the Open University will help unionlearn expand its offering beyond basic skills, further education and vocational courses. "We are keen on doing a lot more work in terms of higher level skills," says Ian Borkett, unionlearn standards and quality manager. "By working with the OU we help widen participation in higher education and meet untapped needs of unions and union members."

This is a huge opportunity for the OU, according to Alan Carr, the OU's head of union liaison - not just to recruit more students but to increase the university's reach into educationally deprived communities. "The OU finds it relatively easy to recruit students from middle-class backgrounds, but it is more difficult to go beyond that," Carr says.

This is not to say that all union members are educationally deprived. One of the first fruits of the TUC/OU partnership is an ongoing research project which is trying to get a clearer picture of the current level of educational attainment among the TUC's very diverse membership. Its 62 member unions (as of January this year) range from the small and local - such as the Sheffield Wool Shear Workers' Union, with 11 members - to national giants such as Unison with more than a million members working in local government, healthcare, utilities and other key services.

"It is likely that at least two million out of the six-and-a-half million members are at graduate level," says Carr. "If the unionlearn/OU partnership is to work, we need to offer more than just basic return to study courses."

However, the priority will be to target those who have been failed by the conventional education system, he says. "We would expect three or four million people would have little or nothing in the way of educational qualifications after leaving school at 16."

Unionlearn is strongly backed by government, which wants to address the UK skills gap. The Department for Education and Skills has committed £4.5m to unionlearn in its first year of operation. The UK ranks 24 out of 29 in the proportion of young people staying on for education and training post-16.

And huge inequality of opportunity persists. In 2000 only 18 per cent of young people from working class backgrounds were in higher education, as opposed to 48 per cent of those from professional and non-manual backgrounds. Worse, the gap in participation between the two groups has been widening; in 2000 it was bigger than it had been in 1990, and even in 1960.

Union involvement in workplace learning has grown, particularly since the setting up of a Union Learning Fund in 1998. But unionlearn is a shift up a gear. The number of union learning reps, workplace training co-ordinators who are key to the implementation of unionlearn, is set to rise from 15,000 to 22,000 by 2010.

Unionlearn is piloting an online resource tool called a "climbing frame" designed for union reps to help members map out learning action plans, which can be for personal development as well as job-related learning. Unions and union learning reps will be able to work with employers to produce customised climbing frames tailored to the needs of an industry, according to Borkett. Unions will also negotiate learning agreements with employers, which will encourage them to provide support to workers.

The OU hopes to recruit co-workers who can form study groups or take tutorials together. "When students are recruited in groups, from the same community, trade union or workplace, there is a greater degree of peer support and results improve," says Carr. In the longer term, the unions and the OU will look at developing tailor-made courses.

If unionlearn is to succeed, the support of employers in providing learning opportunities for their workforce will be crucial. But their track record is not good, according to the TUC, which is lobbying - so far unsuccessfully - for training to be made legally a core bargaining item between unions and employers, in the same way as pay and conditions are. "One in three employers do not train their workforce," says Borkett. "Just under two-fifths of employees, nearly 8.5 million people, did not receive any training over the past year and most of them had low or no qualifications."

Nevertheless, he says, he is "very optimistic" that there will be large-scale employer engagement. "There are already many projects taking place around the country."

Carr too is optimistic. "In many ways this is the most exciting development to have taken place since the establishment of the Open University itself," he says.

"If there has historically been no connection between a community and the educational system, that gives rise to a situation where even if people want to get involved in education, they don't know how to. The unionlearn partnership offers a means of communicating that information into industrial working class communities where it wouldn't have been readily available in the past."

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'It's important to reach out to people'

Maria McNamee's one big regret is dropping out of college at 17 with five GCSEs. "I just wanted to get out and earn money, because all my friends were," she says. "Now I look back and I think 'flip'."

But after years of routine office work McNamee, now 30 and a clerical officer with Newry and Mourne Health and Social Services Trust, has raised her sights. She's embarked on an Open University access course, Understanding Children, as the first step on the road to qualifying as a social worker.

McNamee is one of 450 learners from both sides of the Irish border to benefit from an access to learning initiative offered by the Open University in conjunction with Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the Centre for Cross Border Studies. Funded by money linked to the peace process, the Cross Border Openings project offers a model for how unionlearn can encourage people with few or no qualifications to study. McNamee, a Unison member, learnt about the scheme through her trade union rep.

"It is important to reach out to people rather than waiting for people to come to you," says Pauline Collins, the OU's cross-border project co-ordinator. "Unionlearn reps will be able to get information out to the membership, from people they trust."

'I see even one learner as a success'

Few people understand the obstacles to workplace learning better than David Nevett, a workplace learning rep for his union, Amicus, working in a glass factory in Doncaster, South Yorkshire.

The factory furnaces run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and its 450 or so - overwhelmingly male - workforce work 12-hour shifts, two days, followed by two nights, followed by six days off. Getting them into learning is very difficult, says Nevett.

"We sent a questionnaire out to all employees asking what sort of things they would like to learn and we had a very poor response, about 1 per cent." He organised learning taster sessions with the local college, held in the workplace - though not in work time. "But then after people had done the taster sessions they didn't want to progress."

After-shift tiredness is one problem, as is the difficulty of fitting courses around the shift pattern. But, as Nevett sees it, a bigger problem is incentive. "In Doncaster, they feel they've got the job, they've got the wages, they don't want to do any learning. The company provides training for them to do their role up to NVQ standard and when they've done that they don't want to do any more.

"There are very few opportunities for improving yourself, and when you have improved yourself, there is very little opportunity to move elsewhere."

The company has set aside a computer suite for learners but any learning that is not related to the job in hand has to be done in the learner's own time. But despite the odds stacked against him, Nevett perseveres. An Open University graduate himself, he is keen to share his enthusiasm with others and support them, he says. "I see even one learner as a success."

Nevett says it would help if the Government encouraged companies to do more workplace learning, and if courses were paid for, but workers still need to be able see they will get something out of it at the end.

"You need better-paid jobs for them to move into. In the South Yorkshire area there are jobs, but they are all low paid."