Union Learning Representatives (ULRs)
Union Learning Representatives (ULRs)
Guidance, support and training provided by Union Learning Representatives (ULRs) is available to union members.
Union Learning Representatives (ULRs) were granted statutory rights in 2003 by UK-wide legislation. Employers must enable ULRs to have reasonable paid time to undertake their duties. The key functions of ULRs within workplaces set out in the Employment Act 2002 are:
- analysing learning and training needs;
- providing information and advice to employees (and sometimes employers) about learning or training matters;
- arranging and supporting learning and training;
- consulting with the employers about these activities.
The key aim is to raise awareness of learning and training opportunities among employees and facilitate take-up of these opportunities where practicable. Typically, ULRs will negotiate with employers to achieve these aims. In workplaces in which the relevant union is recognised, union members are entitled to unpaid time off work to consult their ULR. The TUC coordinates ULRs for Great Britain (i.e. England, Scotland and Wales). Northern Ireland has a similar yet separate scheme for union-led learning.
Union Learning Representatives (ULRs) are supported from the UK TUC’s Union Learning Fund (ULF) . To prepare for their role, ULRs complete a one-week course and while they are undertaking their own training, they are entitled to paid time off from their employers.
ULRs typically provide information and advice, over three-quarters report having arranged or helped to arrange learning or training courses for employees, and over half have conducted a learning needs assessment in their workplace. Almost half have also helped employees access funding for training. Over half ULRs report promoting training that leads to qualifications.
- Trade union
Employer or employee organisations
ULRs are ordinary trade union members; funding may be provided by employer.
In 2013 there were 28,000 ULRs in Great Britain. Under the Employment Act 2002, ULRs must be trained sufficiently to carry out their duties and they have a statutory right to paid time off work to undertake this training. Most ULRs are located in the public sector. ULRs are more active in larger organisations (>249 employees), though activity rates are increasing amongst ULRs. Most hold other union posts, though over a third are new activists in their union. These new activists are more likely to be female and younger than existing activists. ULRs are very effective as bottom-up champions of learning within workplaces. They both meet existing demand and stimulate that demand. ULRs increase the likelihood that employees receive training and also increase the incidence (or number of days) of training within workplaces.
In surveys, female ULRs report higher levels of impact. Almost all ULRs report to have provided information and advice, over three-quarters report having arranged or helped to arrange learning or training courses for employees, and over half have conducted a learning needs assessment in their workplace. Almost half have also helped employees access funding for training. In terms of the type of learning, over half ULRs report promoting training that leads to qualifications, as well as encouraging employees to undertake basic literacy and numeracy courses, and courses that lead to personal as well as professional development. In surveys, half of managers report that ULRs have impacted both employer-funded and non-employer funded training in their companies. ULRs' effectiveness is greater in workplaces that have supportive management and where negotiations occur between unions and management on learning and training. Workplace learning agreements and partnerships also boost ULR effectiveness.
From the employee perspective, ULRs represent a source of up-to-date expert advice and information. The ULR may be a person who is familiar to them and has their trust and who is trained and willing to be an advocate for employees' learning and training needs. A key strength of ULR supported learning and training is that it can relate to personal as well as professional development, which is particularly motivating for non-traditional learners who often perceive themselves as having an educational deficit. ULRs undertake their union work during working hours and so they are available to employees during that time ; which is an important issue for, for example, shift workers.
From a union's perspective, offering a learning service helps unions engage with all employees, not just union members. There is evidence that, through learning, ULRs can help increase rates of union membership within workplaces.
For employers, ULRs offer a source of expert advice which is inexpensive and can help identify learning and employee training needs and encourage a learning culture within the company. As intended when the institution of ULRs was established, ULRs play a frontline role in delivering successive UK governments’ policies aimed at boosting learning capacity, and skill and qualification acquisition amongst the workforce.
Most ULRs are located in the public sector and larger organisations, neither of which provide the bulk of employment in the UK. Gaining presence in private sector SMEs is particularly challenging. Typically, ULRs spend more time undertaking their union work than is accredited by their employer, leading to unpaid time off work. There is mixed evidence from across the UK as to whether the ULR role combined with other union representative roles leads to work overload for ULRs, making them less effective. It should also be noted that in 2010, the UK government did not extend employees’ right to request time to train in smaller companies (that is, those with fewer than 250 employees), as it was intended by the previous government. The implication is that ULRs could do more to help boost learning and training if given the extended scope.
From the employer's perspective, whilst inexpensive, costs are incurred with ULRs having paid time off work for training and for carrying out their statutory responsibilities. Whilst the ULR role is now included in unions’ rule books, there is still some debate within unions about how much emphasis should be placed on their role when there is competition within unions for resources. Whilst employers benefit from having ULRs in their companies, they are not obliged to negotiate with unions over learning and training, though only just over a third of ULRs report that management does not negotiate and only a third does not consult. However, less than half of ULRs report that senior management value their activities and only one-third report that management generally values their activities. This last point is significant, given that ULRs are more effective with supportive management.