The government should introduce education grants for over-55s. These would cut healthcare and social-service bills as well as redress a serious imbalance in education policy, according to a report.
Tom Schuller, author of Delivering Age Equality in Education and dean of continuing education at Birkbeck, University of London, said that there was evidence of systematic discrimination against older people and that the ideals of widening participation were not available to all ages.
The report, commissioned by the Institute of Public Policy Research, describes the government's emphasis on 18 to 30-year-olds as "crippling", and says policy-makers focus only on certified and work-related learning.
Professor Schuller's proposed 255 Educational Allowance" (FFEA) would be a £150 allowance, weighted in favour of those without university education, along the lines of the winter fuel allowance but catering for intellectual and psychological wellbeing instead of their physical comfort.
With 15 million UK adults aged 55 or over, and assuming a 25 per cent uptake, the allowance would cost a maximum of £500 million. An additional one-off grant to those without a university degree would cost about £25 million. Balanced against an estimated
£15 billion annual bill for mental health, just a 1 per cent improvement in mental health resulting from FFEAs could meet a third of this cost.
Professor Schuller concludes: "The continuing identification of education with the initial phase of people's lives means that discrimination against 'older' people starts very early. We must recognise that it is not only the young who need access to all the benefits that education can bring."
Professor Schuller calls for forthcoming age discrimination legislation to be extended beyond training and employment issues to cover access to education.
The University of the Third Age has 120,000 UK members who are all retired. Keith Richards, U3A vice-chairman and former head of continuing education at Westminster University, said: "Lifelong learning in reality equals career change and retraining. There is no financial commitment from the government to what the phrase really means."
With limited funds, Mr Richards said that the organisation was at crisis point and could no longer afford the rent on its national office.
A spokesman for Universities UK said: "In recent years universities have been highly successful in attracting mature students in increasing numbers. This is an interesting report and UUK will consider its recommendations in the context of the widening participation and lifelong learning agenda."