Leading adult education figures interpreted it as a move to thwart Labour which has pledged to set up individual learning accounts with tax concessions to encourage employers and the public to invest in lifetime learning.
The tax changes were welcomed by Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, as recognition that personal development skills were as useful as training for economic development.
"It is the first crack in the wall which will open the way for accepting the principle of tax relief for seriously useless learning," he said.
Adult educationists always argued that the divide created by the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act was a false one. Funding was split between the Further Education Funding Council for vocational courses, with non-exam classes left to the mercy of increasingly cash-strapped local authorities.
Mr Clarke proposed to extend and simplify tax relief for vocational training and exempt employer-funded, non-job related training which is currently taxable. This will benefit workers in schemes like the one pioneered by Ford which allows employees around Pounds 100 a year to spend on a course.
The Government estimates that 700 companies run employee-development schemes. Courses range from basic literacy and numeracy to Masters degree level.
Existing vocational training relief will be extended to training financed by career development loans and access funds. James Paice, the education and employment minister, told a NIACE conference this week that 83,000 people had invested Pounds 250 million in their own training using career loans.
Vocational training relief provided a 24 per cent discount with more than Pounds 47m paid out to support Pounds 189m invested by individuals. He was delighted that from next January VTR would be available for career development loans.
Mr Paice also said the helpline pioneered by NIACE during four Adult Learners Weeks, would be made permanent from next September. He said 160,000 calls had been taken since 1993 - 40 per cent of callers had gone on to learning and 90 per cent wanted to see a helpline available all year round.
The line, costing about Pounds 4m in the first year, would help more people start the right course, reduce dropping out and improve success rates. Advice would be free, impartial and confidential.