2012 Evaluation of Union Learning Fund and unionlearn

Towards the end of 2011 the government issued an invitation to tender to undertake a further evaluation of the impact of unionlearn and the ULF.

There was a particular interest in gaining evidence of the impact of union learning in workplaces that had focussed on increasing apprenticeship numbers and supporting other forms of intermediate and higher-level skills, as these had not been explored in depth in previous evaluations.

For the first time, this particular evaluation also looked at the impact of projects that had attempted to engage with non-unionised workplaces.

The evaluation also built on the analyses undertaken for the 2010 study and included an analysis of learner records and the production of case studies in order to track the benefits of union learning for learners, employers and unions. The evaluation also consisted of a literature review and interviews and focus groups with non-unionised employers. The evaluation was undertaken by the Institute of Employment Studies, in partnership with CERIC (Leeds University Business School), and the final report – Evaluation of the Union Learning Fund: learners, workplace cases and extension to the non-union sector – was completed in October 2012.

In line with the 2010 evaluation this report came to the general conclusion that "across the piece the evidence shows that the ULF funding is helping individuals progress at work, gain advancement into better jobs, and have better home lives." The effectiveness of ULRs in helping those facing the greatest barriers to training is again a key theme, for example, with the researchers concluding that "what ULRs in particular and union learning projects in general excel at is in engaging with that stratum of workers which is ordinarily overlooked by day-to-day training."

The evaluation also repeats similar findings to the 2010 evaluation regarding the model of learning that is supported by the ULF and unionlearn. In essence this is "a model that supports learner participation in multiple learning activities and leads to progression in a range of learning routes including employer training … [and] … which supports a sustained 'conversation' between the union, employers and workers about learning and building a culture of learning and supporting structures in the workplace". The evaluation also concluded that union-led workplace learning centres played a key role in underpinning this model of learning.

A key feature of the evaluation was also to assess how unionlearn and the ULF was delivering on the challenge government had set in recent years to widen the union learning offer to all parts of the workforce. This had led to concerted efforts to include a greater focus on apprenticeships, intermediate and higher level qualifications, and continuing professional development. Based on the detailed case studies, the evaluation concludes that there was clear evidence of success in this area, as evidenced below:

"Firstly, apprentices were being helped to develop employability as well as technical skills and encouraged to think about progression to higher education; teaching assistants and care assistants have been helped to achieve higher education modules and awards; teachers and managers were being supported to obtain continuing professional development. In some cases this was the only professional development that individuals had access to, as employers cut back on training spend and restricted release from the workplace [because of the recession]."

The evaluation highlights additionality and value for money in a number of respects, including that union learning initiatives had led "to the introduction of learning that would not otherwise have been available … [and] … had in several cases stimulated investment by employers."

The benefits identified for employers reflect many of those identified in the 2010 study, including the "spillover" from positive engagement in union learning which incentivised individuals to be more keen to sign up for employer-provided training. However, unlike the 2010 study, this evaluation did not conduct interviews with a large sample of employers so there was less quantitative data available on the impact of union learning on workplace performance and other aspects of working life. Nevertheless, in general employers said that union learning initiatives delivered wider positive benefits and were often "credited with playing a central role in HR strategy on continuous learning."

The evaluation also included several focus groups and interviews with employer representatives from non-unionised workplaces to assess the extent to which roles similar to ULRs or Workplace Learning Advocates (WLAs) might help promote learning and development in the non-unionised sector. While this research suggested only limited support for the ULR or WLA role, it did highlight the potential benefits of business-to-business communication and the evaluation recommended joint work between unions and employer bodies to build employer/HR managers' awareness of the benefits and key features of the union learning model.