Last week Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, expressed concern that adults were being pressed into education and training against their will.
But the Cardiff University study suggests that the Government's exhortations have been ignored as there has been little or no increase in numbers of adults gaining qualifications since 1991.
Official statistics indicate that the British labour force is far better qualified than it used to be. The proportion of working-age adults with no qualifications has been reduced substantially and there have been marked increases in the number of people with higher-grade GCSEs, A-levels, degrees and their vocational equivalents.
However, Dr Stephen Gorard and his colleagues, Neil Selwyn and Gareth Rees, believe that the apparent progress is simply due to a "conveyor-belt effect" - - better-qualified 16 to 18-year-olds are entering the labour force and less well-qualified 60 and 65-year-olds are leaving it. It is estimated that 44 per cent of women aged 59 and 34 per cent of men aged 64 have no qualifications. The corresponding figures for 16-year-old girls and boys entering the labour force is 16 and 20 per cent.
"We have found that work-based training is not rising to meet the challenge of lifelong learning and that employers are supporting an ever-decreasing proportion of training," they say in a study preared for the National Assembly of Wales. "Work-based training may even have declined over the past decade, while some socio-economic inequalities in adult participation in education and training have worsened."
The Cardiff researchers reached these conclusions after analysing qualifications data provided by the Welsh Joint Education Committee and the Labour Force Survey, a quarterly study covering 60,000 homes.
"In many respects our conclusions make depressing reading," they admit. "However, training targets miss out a great deal of the learning which actually occurs amongst the adult population because they focus upon certificated education and training."
The researchers contend that the excessive emphasis on qualifications for people of working age is leading to an "over-education paradox" whereby many people are over-qualified for their jobs.
They also believe that some education targets should be redefined. At present, they provide no incentive for a student to obtain three GCSEs rather than two, for example.
"If the targets have an impact on qualifications and participation, it is to encourage a focus on those who are on the 'cusp', for example between grades D and C at GCSE," they say.
"Work in the United States suggests that the setting of thresholds serves progressively to exclude those furthest from them."
Stephen Gorard can be contacted at the School of Social Sciences, Glamorgan Building, King Edward VII Avenue, Cardiff University. Tel 01222-875113 email firstname.lastname@example.org