Participation in adult learning suffered a steep decline over the past 12 months, a survey will reveal this weekend.
On the eve of Adult Learners' Week, the poll of 5,000 adults suggests that professional and managerial classes in particular are turning their backs on lifelong learning, possibly as a result of "executive exhaustion".
The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, which did the survey, is concerned that many gains of the government's first term have been lost - this is the second year running the number of adult learners has fallen.
Alan Tuckett, Niace director, said the reasons for this drop were probably linked to industrial and economic downturn.
Chris Duke, associate director of higher education at Niace, said the long-awaited shift towards a lifelong-learning society had yet to occur.
"Universities need to recapture their civic mission and accept that being inclusive does not threaten quality," he said.
The true extent of adult learning is subject to intense debate. In another report, to be published next week, Steve Leman, principal research officer at the Department for Education and Skills, points out the difficulty of accurately reporting participation.
He says that because definitions of learning vary so much, with some experts arguing that there is no such thing as a "non-learner", it is important to distinguish between deliberate learning and everyday experience.
Naomi Sargant, honorary research fellow of Niace, says there is widespread confusion about the use of terms such as adult education, continuing education and lifelong learning.
"What is needed is a generic term that has general recognition and can be used to gain support from a wide variety of stakeholders in adult learning, preventing individual interests being picked off in a way that weakens the overall cause," she said.
Veronica McGivney, principal research officer at Niace, said adults found it difficult to label activities they found enjoyable as learning. "Studies repeatedly show that it is often the word learning itself that creates a block, not only for those who are outside but also for those inside a structured learning environment."
* European education ministers want member states to encourage the take-up of lifelong learning and boost the number of science, technology and mathematics students, especially women, in universities, writes Keith Nuthall.
The European Commission Council of Ministers this week agreed two targets to be met by 2010. The first is to achieve an average level of participation in adult education of at least 12.5 per cent and the second is to see an increase of at least 15 per cent in mathematics, science and technology graduates, while decreasing the overwhelming proportion of men taking these subjects.
European education commissioner Viviane Reding said the aim of the benchmarks were to spark reviews of existing policies, rather than set national targets.
Adult Learning and Social Division: A Persistent Pattern , volume 2.
Available at www.niace.org.uk/Publications/A/alsocdiv2.htm