Proposals by the Learning and Skills Council will put back adult education by 10 years, critics argue.
They say the council's draft corporate plan has failed to give the priority to adult learning called for by the Education Secretary.
His letter outlining the council's remit highlighted the need to stimulate adult demand for all kinds of learning, and particularly for older people living in the most disadvantaged communities.
Alan Tuckett, director of NIACE, the adult learners' group, said the council's targets were too narrow to measure the effectiveness of its work in meeting the aspirations of the full range of adult learners.
"The draft plan represents a sharp reverse in policy, taking us back to the beginning of the 1990s. It took 10 years to persuade the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets that the lifelong learning targets needed to include one relating to adult participation.
"That was conceded early in the life of this Government, when the importance of widening participation was adopted as a key goal for post-compulsory education.
"The importance of stimulating demand was recognied in the Learning and Skills Act when the council was given a statutory duty for promotion. Yet the only participation target in the first plan of the new body relates to 16 to 18-year-olds.
"At the stroke of a pen, it looks as though the council's focus in lifelong learning is being unhelpfully narrowed."
John Harwood, LSC chief executive, said: "The draft corporate plan is currently out for consultation so we are actively encouraging comments and feedback - but I do think it would be ludicrous to describe it as a step backwards. It sets out a plan for taking us 10 years into the future, building on what has been achieved so far.
"It sounds as though NIACE has a different view about how we should achieve the objectives which we share. We have set out a mechanism to deliver a world-class education and training system based on achievement targets.
"It may be that NIACE feels setting participation targets would more effectively deliver this. If so, I'd welcome them setting out in detail why they think this would be more effective - we can then look at their contribution as part of the formal consultation process."