Adult Learners' Week begins tomorrow (pages 6 and 17). This should have been a euphoric time. We have a government committed to encouraging lifelong learning and a raft of plans for bringing it about: the University for Industry, individual learning accounts, higher education funding council money geared to encouraging greater participation, the New Deal.
There are real and exciting possibilities here for all who want to learn for pleasure or self-advancement and for institutions to provide what they want. If there is not yet much sign of new money for higher education in general, discrete packets of cash will attach to each initiative, providing incentives for universities and colleges to do new things.
But there is muddle, too, about what is intended and for whom. The terminology does not help. In law, everyone over the age of 18 is an adult - that is almost everyone in higher education. But that is not what people mean by adult education, a term that dates from before the age of majority was lowered. It used to refer to courses put on, often by local authorities, for people studying for interest but not for exams. It did not include short, self-financing courses for employed people. The term "adult education" related to subsidies for courses rather than types of students.
Now funding changes have pushed the providers of these courses into arranging assessment to retain those subsidies, and the distinction between "adult" and other courses has, in these days of modular course design, become blurred to disappearing point. Only students on full-cost fee courses can learn what they want and skip exams - whether they pay for themselves or are paid for by an employer.
Courses where the employer pays have become a nice earner for universities, especially as the market price is set by expensive private training providers. This can put the cost beyond the pockets of individuals who want to upgrade their skills on their own account.
Meanwhile those people, often retired, who want to study for interest without the incubus of exams may not be able to find the courses they want at any price: the University of the Third Age has been slow to catch on, for where is the profit in it? Lobbying to the effect that active minds in old age make for less burden on health and social services has yet to produce, for example, tax incentives for older students to offset course costs or a bus-pass type of concession for pensioners entitled to benefits.
Another term tangled in this debate - and the more so as "lifelong learning" has become the catch-phrase - is "mature student". Maturity has been variously defined as over 23 or over 21. The definition related to two things: the point at which grant regulations allow students to be assessed independently of their parents - a point that will become less important as grants disappear; and the point at which admissions officers were willing to waive standard entry requirements.
The second point is especially central to government policies for wider access, social inclusion and encouraging people back into learning. Unfortunately many older students, if they plan to study full-time and have mortgages to pay and young families to support, will be among the hardest hit by the government's abolition of maintenance grants and will be the least able to cope with loan repayments.
Those planning to study part-time, as many necessarily do, have yet to see any real moves (apart from at the margin in Scotland) to treat them on the same basis as full-time students. Failure to address this inequity is one of the biggest disappointments of higher education policy so far, a disappointment that is shared by further and higher education minister Baroness Blackstone.
Not only the terminology is muddled. Objectives are muddled, too. There are many groups making demands on higher education. The government is the largest customer, with its main priorities social inclusion and determination to see the workforce better prepared. But there are others: myriad individuals with their own hopes and ambitions - for a job (or a better job), for an interesting leisure life or a richer retirement; companies and organisations seeking competent staff. And that is leaving aside research, technology transfer and the provision of expert professional services to society.
The notion that a set of objectives for higher education can be set centrally in any meaningful way is fanciful. So is the idea that students can be divided into half a dozen neat categories to be treated as distinct groups under different social policies: school-leaver, New Dealer, young mature, adult and so on.
If the idea of lifelong learning is to take off, higher education will have to respond to a huge range of demands that will (and should) shift and change rapidly. This is not something that can be planned centrally, standardised nationally or imposed by inspection. Potential students' range of experience, qualification, background and wealth will be too wide to fit into any neat classification. In addition, meeting their aspirations will be too expensive for any one group - government, employers, students.
There is a gradually dawning recognition - at least around the fringes of the government if not yet at its heart - that there is not enough tax revenue to pay for all that could and should be done in higher education and that higher education is better placed than any other sector of the service to rely at least in part on the market.
This view has been anathema within the Labour Party and, indeed, within higher education, but it could gather impetus in the summer if the comprehensive spending review does not come up with the money for which higher education hopes.
What is needed is the kind of strategic thinking that was missing from the Dearing report and is still missing in the government's lifelong learning discussion documents. That thinking should start by regarding all adults (in the legal sense) as potential learners, abandoning the outdated terms "adult education" and "mature student". It should ask how institutions may be enabled to respond most readily to diverse demands. The answers will inevitably include many types of courses alongside the monolithic first-degree course. The result will certainly not be neat and tidy, and it will risk a further explosion of accountability-driven attempts to calibrate and inspect unless the government becomes more welcoming to diversity than it has been so far.
For its part, the government should concentrate on how best to help those who cannot otherwise afford it take advantage of those opportunities. By its actions in the market, it will be able to steer higher education towards its social and economic priorities without blighting higher education's creativity. Such an approach is evident in embryo in the programmes on the government's menu, but there is still need for more clarity and less top-down imposition.