Making Learning Work
Union Learning Representatives (ULRs)
‘Making Learning Work’
Over a three-year period, the Campaign for Learning led a partnership of stakeholder
organisations to steer the ‘Making Learning Work’ project, funded through the European Social
Fund’s EQUAL stream. Action research was conducted in nine large organisations to
investigate “what works” in raising the demand for learning and the difference this makes.
Whilst all the organisations involved in the research had union representation, the ULR model
can equally be applied to non-unionised workplaces as a successful approach to creating an
inclusive, motivated and skilled workforce. This factsheet considers what are ULRs/learning
champions, the role they play, and the benefits they bring to learners and your organisation.
What is a Union Learning Rep?
It is important to state from the outset that the role of a ULR in the workplace is not prescriptive.
In fact, one of the strengths of the ULR model is that their role can be flexible and responsive to
the structure, needs and culture of the workplace. The key is to make Union Learning Reps –
or non-unionised Learning Reps - work for your particular workplace.
Currently, there are some 7500 ULRs in the UK and the TUC anticipate that by the year 2010,
there will be a network of about 22,000. The role of the ULR is to raise awareness of training
and development opportunities, and support and encourage colleagues to take the necessary
steps to access and participate in learning.
The Employment Act 2002 (Section 43) sets out the rights of ULRs. In a workplace where the
union is recognised, ULRs have the right to reasonable time off (with pay) to carry out their
duties and to take part in relevant training. Union members who wish to access the services of
a ULR have the right to reasonable time off (without pay) to do this. Although some employers
may be reluctant to give ULRs – or any Employer Learning Champion - time off to fulfil their
duties, it has been calculated by the government that any short-term loss of productivity that
results from this time off is greatly outweighed by the extra productivity of employees upskilled
as a result of the ULRs’ advice and support (SERTUC Briefing Document, 12 May 2004).
ACAS has developed a Code of Practice which sets out the key provisions that need to be
observed for the ULR to secure paid time off, which includes giving notice to the employer in
writing. (See the Resources section for a link to this Code of Practice).
The Employment Act 2002 sets out 5 key functions undertaken by a Learning Representative:
Analysing learning or training needs
Providing information or advice about learning or training matters
Arranging learning or training
Promoting the value of learning or training, and
Consulting the employer about carrying out these activities
Tip for Employers! The five key functions of a ULR could be carried out by one of your existing
members of staff. It is important that this person has a good rapport with their colleagues and
has an understanding of the barriers to learning that people face. They do not need to be a
trained expert in advice and guidance, as long as he/she knows where to signpost colleagues.
In any company there will be those who readily access the learning opportunities offered, but
others who lack the confidence to get involved. This will be due to a multitude of different
reasons - from a fear of failure harping back to previous negative experiences of learning from
school days, to a wariness of the employers’ motivations in providing the training. The
employer should be understanding to the ULR’s need to engage with ‘harder to reach’ groups
such as shift workers, part-time staff and employees at off-site locations.
Learning is a particularly tricky ‘product’ to promote as we are, in essence, trying to sell
something that has already been rejected. Our colleagues are important learning influencers,
which is why Union Learning Reps have been so successful in raising the demand for learning
in the workplace. It can be a delicate and lengthy process to take people from a rejection of
learning, to get them to feel ready and motivated to engage. It can be even harder to persuade
colleagues with Skills for Life needs to undertake training.
Tip for Employers! Many workplaces train up members of staff to support the Skills for Life
needs of their colleagues. To help with this, the TUC runs courses for Union Learning Reps
to develop their role and acquire a greater understanding of learners' needs related to skills
for life. Employers can also access support through the Skills for Life Strategy Unit, whose
resources include an ‘Employer toolkit’.
One way to switch employees back on to learning is to offer a positive ‘taste’ of learning that is
both fun and informal. Learning at Work Day, coordinated by the Campaign for Learning, is an
opportunity for employers to put on learning tasters in the workplace that are fun, but which
deliver business benefits. In the seven years that Learning at Work Day has been running,
Union Learning Reps have used the Day to promote learning, build partnerships with colleges
and other learning providers, as well as to raise awareness of their role and the support they
can offer their colleagues.
Tips for Employers! Take part in Learning at Work Day 2007 and begin by setting up a
‘Planning Group’ to organise the Day in your workplace. The Planning Group should include
Union Learning Reps (if applicable) or your own Employee Champions or Reps, HR Staff,
and line managers. This may prove to be an important first step in using Employee
Champions to promote learning.
The findings from the ‘Making Learning Work’ Project underline the key role played by the
Union Learning Rep in promoting learning and offering advice and guidance. In particular:
Information, advice and guidance (IAG) provided by ULRs had a greater impact on raising
participation in learning than IAG provided by professional IAG workers, in organisations
where both were available.
The ULR initiative is most appropriate for increasing participation amongst non-traditional
learners and those with basic skills difficulties, whilst learndirect and Learning Directories
– which contain information on providers and provision opportunities – are less
appropriate initiatives for engaging this type of learner.
Making Union Learning Reps work for your workplace (Practical Applications)
For ULRs (or any form of Employee Learning Champion) to work for your workplace, it helps if:
The work of the ULR is integral to the employer’s Training and Development Plan
The ULR acts as an “outreach arm” of the HR department, whilst being seen as impartial
Line managers support and actively encourage ULRs.
ULRs can play an important role in helping to inform and implement an employer’s Training and
Development Plan. Any such Plan should reflect the training needs and specific skills
necessary to enable employees to carry out their work effectively and competently. ULRs and
Employee Reps can help to identify and record the needs of individuals through surveys and
interviews, which can then be fed back to the Human Resources or Training Department.
Tips for Employers! On the TUC website www.learningservices.org.uk/extras/tna.doc
there is a useful Learning Needs Questionnaire, which could be adapted to meet the needs
of your own organisation. The Questionnaire looks at barriers to learning, motivations for
learning, learning needs and learning interests, and preferred methods of delivery.
Training for ULRs is provided (and funded) by the TUC and individual unions, and is accredited
through the Open College Network. Employers can work with ULRs to ensure that the training
they receive from the union meets the needs of both the workforce and the company’s Training
and Development Plan. For example, an employer may have a Skills for Life target, and ULRs
can be ‘trained up’ to help the employer meet this target.
The ‘Making Learning Work’ Project found that ULRs are most effective in raising the demand
for learning when they are highly visible within the workplace and operate independently of the
management / HR function. However, it is important that, when communicating with their
colleagues, the two work together. ULRs or Employee Learning Champions can act as the
“outreach arm” of the department, reaching the parts other promotional methods and
communication channels cannot reach. For example, Employee Reps are often well placed to
communicate health and safety requirements to their colleagues, and the knock-on effect of
poor literacy and numeracy skills to these requirements. Employee Reps can also help to raise
awareness of NVQs, Apprenticeships and other training opportunities on offer. It is equally
important to clarify the role and boundaries if ULRs and HR departments are to work together.
In order for ULRs to work for your workplace, it is vitally important to get the support and
commitment of senior managers and line managers. This is key to making learning work in any
organisation. Line managers have to create a positive learning climate where the employee
feels comfortable to take time to access the services of the ULR, and the ULR feels supported
to carry out his / her duties. The rapport between the ULR or Employee Rep is particularly
important when it comes to negotiating time off to carry out their duties.
In addition to the areas discussed above, Union Learning Reps – or Employee champions,
generally – can help to raise the demand for learning in the workplace by:
Running fun and informal training and learning events. For example book clubs,
encouraging skills swaps, and other learning tasters.
Helping with the induction of new recruits - either generally or by focusing on a particular
area, such as explaining the learning / training policy of the company.
Pulling together information (even just by collecting leaflets) on local learning opportunities
– from Adult Learners’ Week activities to learndirect courses, and courses offered by the
local college and adult education provider.
Where there is a Learning Centre on site, ULRs can staff the centre outside of core training
hours. This is an ideal opportunity to support colleagues to complete learndirect courses,
for example. If you don’t have a Learning Centre, trade unions (in partnership with the
employer) may apply to the Union Learning Fund for funding to set one up.
Dave, 36, used to travel to work with a colleague who ‘badgered’ him into taking up the offer
of a free IT course. He had left school at 16 with three CSEs and had not taken part in any
further formal training since. Dave didn’t really believe the IT course would have sparked
such a keenness to pursue additional learning and lead him to become a ULR.
About his training and becoming a ULR, Dave said: “It was a good experience for me. I learnt
what works and what doesn’t work, about successes and how it could motivate staff.”
Dave has also achieved more than being a representative for his own colleagues and peers,
having been seconded for two days a week for an eight-week period to speak to other
companies about Learning Reps and Learning Centres. He said: “It’s been a roller-coaster
since becoming a Learning Rep. It’s improved my self-confidence, meeting people at different
levels and being able to communicate with them - it doesn’t phase me now. And also
speaking to people on the shopfloor, I’ve made new friends. On a personal level this
confidence has made me feel happier about myself.”
He suggests that in his role as ULR he is able to help colleagues by encouraging them about
the use of the onsite Learning Centre: “It’s not a different world, they won’t be watched by
managers, there are still these kinds of barriers to break down."
Follow- up and resources
The TUC Learning Services website, which includes information on ULR courses, funding
learning, a chat area and the Skills Strategy, can be found at
The ACAS code of practice for Union Learning Reps can be found at www.acas.org.uk
The Learning and Skills Council for Hampshire & the Isle of Wight has run its own ‘Learner
Rep’ Network and programme, which is based on the successful Union Learning Rep
model. For more information, see www.link2learn.co.uk and go to the “4 Business”
The Campaign for Learning’s Learning at Work Day website –
www.learningatworkday.com – has tips on promoting learning and ideas for the national
Learning at Work Day (Thursday 25 May 2006).