Unfair rules on funding and conflicting government policies are holding back efforts to provide education to people of all ages, a major inquiry on lifelong learning has concluded.
The two-year Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning - which gathered evidence from experts in education, the Civil Service, politicians, the voluntary sector, trade unions and students - found that opportunities for older people to learn are diminishing rather than growing.
In a final report published this week, the inquiry sets out a new strategic framework for lifelong learning in the UK for the next 10-15 years. It also makes an urgent call for an "authoritative body to oversee and scrutinise" the development of the new system.
The authors of the report, Learning through Life, argue that a single central government department should take responsibility for lifelong learning, with a Cabinet committee responsible for monitoring cross-government targets.
Universities are asked to act now to set up a simple system under which students would accumulate qualifications in the form of credits throughout their lives, allowing them to move more easily between education sectors and between institutions.
Tom Schuller, director of the inquiry, said: "Our current system of lifelong learning has failed to respond to the major demographic challenge of an ageing society and to changes in employment patterns, as young people take longer to settle into jobs and older people take longer to leave work.
"The current crisis opens up new options for radically different patterns of earning and learning. We need a new framework for lifelong learning that will make sense for the next quarter-century and enable people to take control of their lives."
Spending on adult learning amounts to £55 billion, or almost 4 per cent of the UK's gross domestic product, of which £26 billion comes from the public purse. Of public expenditure on post-compulsory education, 65 per cent was spent on higher education, with three quarters of this going to learners under the age of 25.
But despite this investment, the inquiry found there was a failure to join up government initiatives, with policy ignoring the need for learning beyond work and employment.
The inquiry, funded by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education and chaired by Sir David Watson, professor of higher education management at the University of London's Institute of Education, recommends that funding for education be linked to credits to eliminate the distinction between part-time and full-time students.
Professor Schuller said: "Some full-time students study only 25 hours a week or less, while some part-time students might be doing 30 hours. What we should be funding are the credits and not sticking with these categories," he said.
"Getting the credit framework in place is so important. The universities have a really crucial role in doing that. The rest of the system, arguably, has already got something like that."
He added that a "lack of political and cultural will" had prevented universities from setting up such a credit system so far.
"There are some misconceptions about the implications of a credit framework that need to be dispelled. We respect university autonomy and diversity. Universities will still be able to design their own qualifications and innovate and experiment."