At the heart of unions

Trade unions have been and continue to be crucial for improving conditions in the workplace and union learning reps (ULRs) have a special role in promoting and supporting the learning needs of members. As part of #heartunions week, Sophie Swain from Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement department talks about the 10% fee discount for union members at Birkbeck and the launch of a new outreach programme for trade union members interested in studying at undergraduate level.

A long-established partnership with the TUC’s unionlearn has enabled union members who wish to study at Birkbeck to receive a 10% discount on their fees, and last year over 700 students took up the discount. The Access and Engagement department are now underpinning this opportunity with targeted outreach activities for union members to support them in their journey to higher education. In line with the department’s mission to support non-traditional students including those who have low prior attainment or who have been out of education for a number of years, this outreach work will focus on those without an existing undergraduate degree or who are returning to university to gain the skills and knowledge needed to progress into a new line of work.

This new initiative has been developed as a timely response to challenges facing London’s workforce, in recognition of the need to adapt to changes in the workplace. Research by the Centre for London (2018) estimates that up to a third of London’s jobs are at risk of automation, which has a disproportionate impact on low and medium-skilled workers. For these workers, higher education study can be a way of preparing themselves for the changes by equipping them with new skills, knowledge and career prospects. Lifelong learning is at the heart of Birkbeck’s ethos, and for almost 200 years we have offered students access to higher education at whatever stage in life, regardless of previous experience.

Trade unions play a vital role in supporting the learning of their members. In a survey of Union Learning Fund learners undertaken by the University of Exeter in 2018, 7 out of 10 reported that without union support, they would not have taken up the opportunity. This study also highlights the importance of information, advice and guidance when supporting learners: for those without any qualifications, 79% said that they would not have taken part without union support. Therefore, we’re building relationships with trade union learning reps (ULRs) to enable them to inform prospective students about opportunities available to them at Birkbeck.

The Access and Engagement department are calling on colleagues from across the college to collaborate on planned initiatives to support current students from a trade union background, as well as anyone who is interested in delivering informal learning activities to trade union members. We would also encourage admissions staff to share details of the discount and outreach work with their applicants, to ensure that those who might benefit can take advantage of the offer. To get in touch and find out more, please email union-learning@bbk.ac.uk.

 

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