UNISON learning reps, branch education coordinators and lifelong learning coordinators gathered online on Wednesday 17 March for an event exploring The Next Chapter of UNISON Learning.
The event was chaired by Margaret McKee, vice chair of UNISON’s Development and Organising committee, who began by wishing participants a happy St Patrick’s Day and thanking participants for all their work over what has been a particularly difficult year.
The first speaker was UNISON’s new general secretary Christina McAnea, who shared her own learning story and paid tribute to the work of UNISON learning reps, education coordinators, and lifelong learning coordinators. She noted that UNISON’s learning offer has adapted and expanded to meet the needs of members and activists during the pandemic year, but stressed that the pandemic had not happened in a vacuum, but in the context of a decade of damaging and divisive Tory cuts – including the cessation of the Union Learning Fund in England.
Christina spoke about her vision for a UNISON College offering free and subsidised learning for UNISON members, taking inspiration from the current UNISON Northern Ireland model and building on the existing member learning and activist training opportunities. ‘We’ve got a great base to work from,’ she said. ‘Just as we provided learning for our members before the Union Learning Fund, so we will continue to do so after it’s gone.’
Assistant general secretary Roger McKenzie also spoke passionately about the closing of the Union Learning Fund. ‘But we have to look at what we can do to continue to provide those learning opportunities to our members.’
He was very clear on the link between learning and organising: ‘Learning allows us to bring some social justice to workplaces where employers are treating our members like something they scraped off the bottom of their shoe.’
TUC senior policy officer Iain Murray gave an overview of the wider context of skills trends, skills policy, and union learning. The picture was challenging, with the total volume of employer-led training having fallen by 60% since the mid-1990s and lower-qualified and young adults being hardest hit by the lack of training.
There was then an opportunity to discuss the future of union and UNISON learning in more detail, with audience members addressing questions to Iain and to Teresa Donegan, head of UNISON Learning and Organising Services. Questions were wide-ranging, covering topics including: digital exclusion; the responsibilities of the UNISON learning rep, branch education coordinator and lifelong learning coordinator; and the future shape of UNISON learning.
There was inevitably a bittersweet flavour to the event, as this was the last big learning event to be held before the Union Learning Fund in England ceases at the end of the month. The final session celebrated the achievements of two Union Learning Fund projects – Bridges To Learning in UNISON Northern, and the England-wide Inclusive Learning Project.
Anne Hansen, Bridges to Learning project manager, explained the aims and scope of the project and shared a video that exemplified its success:
Martin Russo, Inclusive Learning Project manager, paid tribute to the work of the project workers and learning reps who had contributed to the scheme’s achievements. He also shared a video showcasing some of the highlights of the project.