In praise of union learning

Alison Hollinrake is UCU Vice Chair and Union Learning Rep at the University of Central Lancashire. Alison has worked on a number of projects for women, most recently an iROWE project about union support for women dealing with domestic violence Here she considers the continuing role of union education in opening up horizons for working people of all ages and experience.

Alison Hollinrake

I consider myself a lifelong learner.

The start of my working life, in the mid 1970s was as a payroll clerk – at a time when women weren’t allowed to do banking exams.

A request for support – any support – from my employer of seven years for the night school, part time degree programme I wanted to enrol in during the mid 1980s was invariably brushed off with refusal and some degree of amazement that employers might be asked to pay for a degree for a ‘payroll clerk’.

Yet this was not a poor employer or one where there existed no training opportunities – it was a hi-tech engineering company with a YTS training scheme including the opportunity to achieve level 2 NVQ qualifications. It had engineering apprentices, technician trainees, a graduate development programme, supervisor training, and management development. But for lowly payroll clerks (mostly women of course), the doors were firmly shut.

I’m sure that my conviction that I ought to have been offered such opportunities had been awakened by the trade union education I had completed as a Shop Steward, Health & Safety Rep and eventually as Deputy Convenor for APEX. This came courtesy of both TUC Education and my own trade union.

I thought the creation of NVQs, and the establishment of Investors in People might just open up and provide opportunities for those in the workforce, like I had been, who traditionally were overlooked by management in terms of learning and development opportunities unlike our colleagues on the Apprenticeship, Technician, Graduate Development, Supervisory and Management development programmes. This of course has not been the case.

Like many others, I got my first degree after six years of self-funded night school. This then led to my first job in Higher Education – you could do that then!

My MSc followed and in September 2014 I was awarded my Doctorate – my research being concerned with the extent to which the union learning representative (ULR) initiative had met the expectations of its stakeholders. My research continues investigating the impact of the nature of the employment relationship on workplace learning.

I was invited to join the steering group for the North West UCU, Union Learning Fund project “UCU Women, Moving Further, Reaching Higher”  – right up my street! It was truly inspirational working with the project – highlighted on youtube here:


with the enthusiasm and commitment of the Project Manager and the National Officer reminding me why I had embarked on a career, to try to encourage workplace learning, for all employees, not just the ‘elite’ few in the first place.

From being involved in the project my branch  has benefited, and the profile of union learning has been revised – for example we have run a ‘mid-career’ development event. One lesson from this was perhaps that even members of UCU don’t always appear to appreciate how many development opportunities are available to them within our own organization and via the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) offered to us all by the union. I would say to all members to check out the latest resources – found here.

CPD front pageMy colleagues on the Branch Committee regularly participate in development programmes offered both regionally by UCU and TUC Education.  We also use the on-line resources produced by colleagues for colleagues via the UCU Women, Moving Further Reaching Higher Project – all available via the UCU web site to inform and educate us and our members in case work.

UCU branches in the North West region owe it to the project to sustain and embed the outcomes from its work, via the resources it has produced which can be a tremendous help to our branches!

I might add on a personal note, that at this stage in my career, I also appreciate the development opportunities this and other union resources offer for older workers!