EMCC European Monitoring Centre on Change

Union Learning Fund (ULF)

United Kingdom
Phase: Anticipation
  • Support for digitalisation
  • Matching/Networking
  • Social Dialogue
  • Territorial coordination
  • Training
Last modified: 03 August, 2021
Native name:

Union Learning Fund (ULF)

English name:

Union Learning Fund (ULF)


The Union Learning Fund (ULF) is managed and administered by unionlearn, the UK TUC’s (Trade Union Congress) Learning and Skills Organisation, under an agreement with the UK Department for Education (DfE). The ULF covers England, Scotland and Wales (i.e. Great Britain) and directs the level and type of learning activity that should be supported by the fund. The purpose of the ULF is to support unions in encouraging workers' learning. This learning must not substitute for training which should be provided by employers. It is intended as an additional resource. Programmes funded by ULF are primarily aimed at union members.

Main characteristics

The Union Learning Fund intends to bring together unions, employers and educational provision to improve the capabilities of the British workforce. The first ULF was established in 1998 - its primary aim was to develop the capacity of trade unions and Union Learning Representatives (ULRs) to work with employers, employees and learning providers to encourage greater take up of learning in the workplace. The scope of the ULF has gradually broadened as union capacity has grown and government strategic objectives have changed. Unions have been encouraged to work on improving access to work and to work in the community.

Through ULF unionlearn supports unions to become effective learning organisations that can broker opportunities for their members. The ULF is intended to effectively engage with employers to create and facilitate learning programmes which tackle both organisational and individual needs. The programmes funded under ULF are delivered in collaboration with the Association of Colleges, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, City and Guilds and many others to ensure that relevant education and training is provided.

Funding for ULF is provided by government to unions through a series of funding rounds, which were initially annual with supportive funding sought from employers as part of project bids. Within the UK, monies have been apportioned to projects via the Union Learning Fund (ULF) in England, the Wales Union Learning Fund (WULF) in Wales and the Scottish Union Learning Fund (SULF) in Scotland – with ‘ULF’ a generic term. A similar, yet separate fund is in place in Northern Ireland (the Northern Ireland Union Learning Fund).

Unions within the Trades Union Congress can apply for funding from the Union Learning Fund for specific learning projects. Projects have to specify learning outcomes and show evidence in support of their projects.

ULF increasingly funds online distance learning in partnership with online training providers: union members and other workers can access free online courses.


  • National funds
  • Trade union

Involved actors

National government
Employer or employee organisations
Trade unions in England, Scotland and Wales (separate yet similar scheme in Northern Ireland).
Has mobilised participation and partnerships with higher education providers, online training providers and skills agencies in the UK.


There is no UK-wide reporting system of ULF outputs and activities. The most recent evaluation is for the 2015-2016 rounds, conducted by the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) at the Leeds University Business School, in collaboration with the Marchmont Observatory at the University of Exeter. 

The evaluation noted the following findings:

  • Across the 2 rounds (2015-2016) over £45 million (€50 million as at 13 June 2020) was allocated to 41 unions and staff associations running 78 projects, and this resulted in 533,000 'learning episodes'; 
  • ULF continued to support a range of activities though the emphasis was more on functional skills (especially maths), vocational skills and apprenticeships, which was in line with government priorities; 
  • Funding was reduced from around £20 million (€22.5 million as at 13 June 2020) in 2012/2013 to £14 million (€15 million as at 13 June 2020) in 2015/2016. The reduction in funding resulted in a scaling back of activities.

According to the 2019 annual report of Unionlearn, in 2018-19 the ULF supported 20 unions to deliver 23 projects at a total cost of £9.8 million (€11 million as at 13 June 2020).


A key strength of ULFs is that they meet a demand. Research has revealed a large, latent demand for workplace-driven learning amongst the workforce generally and with over half of workers indicating that their likelihood of undertaking this learning was increased if organised through a union. Indeed, unions can provide assurance for vulnerable employees in revealing any skills deficits or learning difficulties. With multiple funding, learning escalators can be created for employees. Moreover, the vast majority of workplace projects are open to all employees, not just union members. In addition to helping to improve management-union relations, ULFs have gained employer support and put learning on the bargaining agenda between employers and unions, company policies on learning have improved and employers have benefitted from workforce upskilling. Union-led workplace learning can thus offer mutual gains to unions, employers and all employees. It has also helped deliver government policy in the UK aimed at boosting learning capacity and skill and qualification acquisition of the workforce.


Across the UK, the different ULFs are fragmented by country, with operational variations and no common reporting system of outputs and activities. Operationally, there is time pressure on ULRs to promote and deliver learning opportunities in workplaces and employers are not always willing to grant employees paid time-off to learn. Moreover, there are variations in the extent to which learning has become formalised within union operations and structures, and a debate within unions about the purpose of learning: as a service in itself, enhancing the employability (and non-working lives) of members or a means to another end – increasing rates of unionisation. These operational challenges often relate to the level of employer support. Whilst often negotiated in workplaces between unions and management, union-led workplace learning is not an embedded bargaining issue between employers and unions. In this respect, the key weakness of union-led workplace learning through the ULF is its sustainability. Despite over 20 years of operation and its presence in many UK workplaces, the ULF remains dependent upon support from whichever government is in power and there have been reductions in available funding since 2015-2016.


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