Lifelong learning does not pay off in the labour market and often leads to lower wages and no improvement in job prospects, according to a group of leading academics.
Pursuing further education in later life can hit your earning power by as much as 40 per cent, a study has revealed.
Most affected are those who decide to acquire level 1 qualifications (equivalent to D-G grade GCSEs), but even those achieving level 3 qualifications - equal to two A-levels or NVQ3 - earn an average of 15 per cent less than those who do not study.
The results are similar for those who already possessed a higher vocational qualification such as an HND and then undertook lifelong learning. They saw earnings slump by an average of 18 per cent.
It may be that those who study have changed priorities and put lifestyle before pay. But the findings have led one of the report's authors to call for students to be made more aware of the likely outcomes of undertaking further education courses: that it may not lead to any financial benefit.
Anna Vignoles, a senior lecturer at the London University Institute of Education, is one of four academics who produced the paper, The Determinants and Effects of Lifelong Learning, for the Centre of Economics of Education.
She said: "It takes time and effort and money to study, and if you get no wage gain at all it is worrying. One message we want to put out is that students should be made aware of this before they embark on lifelong learning.
"It is better to get it right first time. In the labour market employers are more comfortable rewarding people who get their qualifications at the right time."
Co-author Alison Wolf, professor of management at King's College, London, believes the report's findings should lead to a government rethink of its FE policy.
She said: "There is a tendency to believe that qualifications have value with employers. That is a misunderstanding of how the labour market works.
"I think the Government should worry more about whether the learner is gaining additional skills and less about whether they are collecting bits of paper."
She said the high drop-out rate among modern apprentices is a reflection of this. "The apprentices are often quite realistic and don't see the need to hang on just to pick up a certificate," she added.
"There are a limited number of qualifications that employers take seriously. It can often be more beneficial to spend time getting job-related experience than a qualification."
The study compared more than 2,000 people between 1991 and 2000, and how much their earnings were affected by obtaining qualifications between the ages of 33 and 42.
It found that those with level 1 qualifications earned 40 per cent less than those who acquired none at all. Those taking vocationally related level 2 qualifications, such as a BTEC first certificate, earned 10 per cent less than those who took no qualifications.
Dr Vignoles added: "It does seem that vocational courses do not lead to better job prospects at the end. Some lower level qualifications do not pay off.
"If you talk to employers, they know why. They don't teach you anything.
They don't aim to improve a skill. They just certify what you already know."
The study did find, however, that those who were unemployed in 1991 were more likely to be in a job in 2000 if they had undertaken lifelong learning in that period.
Dr Vignoles also pointed out other "wider benefits". People are more inclined to vote, to show higher levels of racial tolerance, and to give up smoking and lead healthier lifestyles if they have participated in lifelong learning, she said.
One reason put forward in the paper as to why qualifications do not always lead to higher pay is "because workers who undertake these qualifications may do so for reasons unrelated to their job, perhaps for their own enjoyment."
The report added: "Such workers may need to be in less stressful and demanding jobs, and may therefore be lower paid, in order to find the time to undertake learning."