Euro MPs have called for the introduction of adult education vouchers to create a more flexible and accessible service.
Local authorities or institutions could issue vouchers to the local adult population to be cashed in at any university or college in exchange for a course of study, under proposals floated during a European Parliament debate last week.
MEPs discussing European Union plans to make 1996 the European Year of Lifelong Learning said it would be more appropriate to use vouchers to fund adult education than other services for which there was a universal need, such as nursery provision.
Graham Watson, Liberal Democrat MEP for Somerset and North Devon, said that either institutions or local councils should have ring-fenced adult education budgets to back voucher schemes.
"Because the key to adult education is access, people have to be able to dip in and out as they get the opportunity. At the moment the system is often far too rigid to make this possible. Vouchers could be a solution," he said.
Somerset already ringfences its community education budget, but this is an unusual arrangement among local authorities, many of which are cutting back on adult education spending. A voucher scheme might operate along the lines of a system run by the Corporation of London, which issues adult education vouchers on a means-tested basis to all local residents who want them. However, the British Government has so far only looked at the possibility of using vouchers to fund nursery and post-16 provision on a national basis.
"What we are saying is that if governments are determined to pursue the voucher idea for ideological reasons, they would do better to apply it to adult education where greater flexibility is needed," Mr Watson added.
MEPs also criticised the Council of Ministers for showing a "worrying lack of commitment" to European Year of Lifelong Learning plans. The budget for the year was set at 8 million ECUs (Pounds 7.1 million) before the number of member states grew from 12 to 15. But the Council has refused to increase the budget in line with their accession.