Learning, knowledge and trade union renewal : an analysis of the student experience of the MA in international labour and trade union studies Ruskin College, Oxford (2006-2016)

Manborde, Ian (2018) Learning, knowledge and trade union renewal : an analysis of the student experience of the MA in international labour and trade union studies Ruskin College, Oxford (2006-2016). Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


The global restructuring of the capitalist political economy of work has catalysed an existential crisis of trade unionism. The search for ways in which to renew and revitalise organised labour is the most urgent task of the global trade union movement.

In doing so however, this thesis asks firstly, when developing strategies for trade union renewal what role does learning and knowledge production play? Secondly it asks, how is that learning and knowledge gained through social action made material? The former question lays at the heart of this thesis investigation. The latter is a significant reflection of its findings.

This thesis explores the experience of an international body of trade unionists who completed the MA in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin College, Oxford between 2006 and 2016. The MA aimed to address the need for the renewal of organised labour, and exemplified Ruskin’s historical role in assisting trade unions internationally in addressing the ‘conditions for change’.

The thesis builds upon and expands in significant, original ways existing scholarship in the field of trade union education. It rests upon traditions of informal learning and knowledge production across social movement literature, which in turn is embedded in radical adult pedagogy including that of Freire and Gramsci.

Methodologically, the thesis applied a critical educational research approach to explore the impact of the MA learning experience. In doing so it involved students in a modified form of the co-production of research design. The research sought to explore degrees of transformation and agential outcomes as a result of MA radical pedagogic and curricula processes. This was supplemented by learner’s own critical reflexive analysis of impact on their movement practice. As such, the thesis applied the theoretical framework of renewal actor to analyse findings.

The findings of the thesis are based on empirical research comprising interviews with a purposive sample of current students and alumni. This methodological approach was allied to an online survey which was completed by the majority of those who enrolled on the MA.

The thesis finds that learners account for their experience of the MA in ways which reflect their embodied sense of trade union activism: that identity, consciousness and knowledge accrue as a result of informal learning undertaken through trade union struggle. Thus, a wholly original grounded theory of embodied activism forms the basis upon which findings attune to the renewal actor proposition. Findings however, move far beyond this proposition in epistemological and ontological terms to generate original grounded theories of knowing and being.

The thesis asserts that knowledge production processes and outcomes of MA learners mirror that of actors within allied social movements. As such findings argue for an education for renewal that draws on MA pedagogy to refresh trade union educational methodologies. This lays the basis for a more coherent set of relations with a wider of body of movements as part of an allied agenda for radical social change in the 21st century, and as means to achieve trade union renewal.

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