Learning should not be defined by the phrase: "When did you get chucked out", Professor Bob Fryer said this week.
The chief executive of the NHS university said there was a perception that learning was a journey until you failed - when you get thrown out is what counts.
"If education and academia had got hold of walking many of us would not have achieved a level one in stumbling. The attitude would have been 'we are not going to put her into talking, we'll put her into mumbling.' " The NHS university was created by the Department of Health to extend learning opportunities for all those working in the health service.
Professor Fryer told the annual conference of the Basic Skills Agency that learning had to run ahead of change. "If we just tell people how bad they are and not what they are good at they will not be able to navigate change. They will not be shapers and authors of society but just its victims, unable to cope with change.
"Learning has to be part of everyday life, not something that comes up and bites you."
He said the numbers of people not involved in learning, or not expecting to be in learning were "terrifying". He said it was a class issue. Some 60 per cent of people in social classes D and E shunned learning. What is it about learning that does not engage and speak to people?" he asked.
He said it was outrageous that the number of working-class people entering higher education still remained static. It was the middle classes who had benefited from expansion. Yet the differences were funded by the public purse.
In Barnsley in the Nineties there were 23,000 jobs directly involved with the pits, and virtually every family relied on the industry. But those jobs disappeared over three years. There was a big increase in drug-taking and crime.
A miner's life depended on certainty, rules and predictability. "This is a world where we are all going to live with unpredictability. We have to give people the wherewithal to navigate it."