Highlight Round table: Theory, policy and practice in lifelong learning

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Subject Union Learning Representatives - UK (John Rodgers, Emma Wallis & Jonathan Winterton)
Outline The Union Learning Representatives is an initiative by the UK Trades Union Congress. The initiative seeks to promote workplace learning through equipping local union representatives to negotiate learning provision and to provide information, advice and guidance on learning opportunities to co-workers. 
    In recent years many of the largest and most influential trade unions within the UK have placed increasing emphasis on learning in general, and in the recruitment and training of Union Learning Representatives (ULRs) in particular. Over 4,500 ULRs have been trained in order both to promote learning within the workplace, and offer advice and guidance on learning opportunities to their colleagues. ULRs have been highly successful with respect to promoting learning within the workplace, facilitating increased participation in learning by members of those groups traditionally under-represented in learning activities, and promoting approaches to learning within the workplace based upon social partnership. 
    Furthermore, the recent establishment of community based ULRs  and the growing interest in the concept of community unionism within unions such as Amicus and ISTC, suggests that the unions themselves recognise the potential for addressing the social inclusion agenda by extending the benefits of the ULR initiative to the economically inactive. 
    There is evidence that ULRs have experienced some success in promoting the broader concept of lifelong learning endorsed by the European Commission, which embraces learning activities undertaken within a personal, civic, social and/or employment-related perspective, as opposed to the narrower view of learning held by many employers, which places more emphasis on the acquisition of task or firm specific skills to facilitate job competence.
   Mainstream approaches to HRD routinely neglect the plurality of the workplace and fail to consider the employee relations implications of HRD.  In examining the ULR initiative, the potential conflict of interest between employers and workers is highlighted and the important role of trade unions is exposed.  While the Employment Act 2002 provided statutory backing for learning representatives, this falls short of a statutory right to bargain over training, let alone a right to access to training as exists in several other EU Member States.  Nevertheless, on the evidence to date, this development is likely to be of pivotal importance for improving trade union effectiveness in influencing HRD and learning opportunities in the workplace, especially for groups at risk of social exclusion, such as low skilled and older workers, who are less likely to have engaged in (recent) learning activities.
    While it is too early for a comprehensive evaluation of their impact, case study evidence and the results of interim evaluation for the Government and the TUC, suggests that they offer a potential good practice example of social partnership to promote learning at work. 
Source Selected passages from the authors' paper "Union Learning Representatives: Making the European area of lifelong learning a reality?" presented at the HRD conference in Toulouse, May 2003 (see proceedings and catalogue of references: Rodgers et al. 2003)
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