The Universities Association for Continuing Education has condemned the European Commission's white paper on teaching and learning as "too modest" in its policy proposals.
UACE, which represents 104 higher education institutions, supports the white paper's emphasis on building a learning society.
But John Field, secretary of UACE's international committee and professor of continuing education at Ulster University, said: "It's a missed opportunity in that there are remarkably few concrete proposals about how this can be brought about."
Various policy measures in the paper focus on initial schooling or training for young people, which is "completely at odds" with the aim of promoting learning across the lifespan, says the UACE response.
Professor Field said the Commission needed to review its own education and training programmes in light of its avowed aims.
Mobility schemes promoted under Socrates, the European education and training programme, discriminated against part-time post-experience higher education, and particularly against open distance learning.
"The white paper explicitly praises the achievements of the Open University, but it's hard to see how the OU could take part in Erasmus [student exchange programme]," he said.
"A lot of learning later in life takes place on a part-time basis and through distance learning, which doesn't fit into full-time placements in another country."
UACE also claims that the white paper is dominated by the goal of economic growth, and that education and training are treated primarily as factors to increase economic competitiveness rather than as a public good in their own right.
"We are deeply dismayed by the cursory way in which learning for other purposes is treated in the white paper," it says.
"A learning society cannot discriminate in favour of learning for one purpose only. For example, the increasing proportion of retired people in European society represents an opportunity for increasing our social capital, by supporting and training those who use their time by volunteering."