Demands of a lifetime
But their experiences raise some sobering questions about what's on offer to them now.
An enthusiastic young man recently appeared in a colleague's FE college office, clutching two Lever-arch files. He'd arrived for work experience as part of an national vocational qualification level 2 in business and administration. Now aged 28, he was once a 17-year-old trainee on a Youth Training Scheme in the same colleague's life and social skills class.
His work experience this time round showed him to be adaptable, hardworking and flexible. Just as he should be, according to all the rhetoric about what the economy needs - although at 17, he had all those qualities anyway.
He asked my colleague for a testimonial so that he could sign off a couple more competences. His portfolio was a beautifully-organised compilation of "evidence" of his already obvious competence.
It turns out that he's become a real expert in NVQs. Since leaving his YTS in 1983, he's had two proper jobs. Each lasted a year. The second time he was made redundant, he joined another training scheme and did a few NVQ units in catering.
And here he was, 12 years after his YTS, doing more NVQ units in another subject. His faith that more of the "right" qualifications will finally get that much longed-for "proper" job has not wavered since he was 17. For some, his willingness to keep on trying to get better skills shows that lifetime learning is working. But his predicament raises other questions.
Meanwhile, adults in South Yorkshire are approaching the Workers' Educational Association and asking for courses - but not NVQs, or anything vocational at all. They say they've done all that. Access courses and degrees have given them a sense of direction, confidence and a taste for learning.
But now, the lack of work and the social decay around them is making them want different things. According to a case study in a recent book Adult Learning, Critical Intelligence and Social Change, published by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, greater numbers of adults are asking not for more computing and technology or job-related skills but for history, art, drama, social studies and politics.
And not only are they rejecting vocational courses. Some are asking hard-to-answer questions about whether studying in modules enables them to develop the intellectual abilities they thought a degree would give them.
With their new-found educational confidence, they now want learning programmes which help them make connections, follow things through and explore issues in depth.
In response, the WEA is finding a small space among all the funding requirements to meet some of this demand, following all the tenets of student-centred learning.
It's an interesting trend which may grow. How will colleges and universities respond? Degrees in new universities are becoming more vocational. College funding is tied to particular types of qualification. Accreditation is increasingly offered in units or modules. More students study and learn individually. Like the ex-YTS trainee, more of their learning and assessment consists of amassing evidence against prescriptive outcomes. These features make learning and assessment more flexible and open to more adults. But demand for a broader range of lifetime learning remains.
As people become confident and skilled through education, they will want more out of it. They are likely to ask awkward questions about why, having done all this learning, they still can't get a job.
The adults approaching the WEA are questioning the view that education is mainly for economic prosperity. They say it is about other things too: communal pride, understanding and social enrichment.
For those who have experienced a more accessible system, lifetime learning will need to mean more than bigger and better organised portfolios of evidence. My colleague's former YTS trainee didn't ask any awkward questions about his lot. For the time being, his view of lifetime learning ties in with what's on offer and so, like many learners, he lets us all off the hook. We can get on with helping learners improve their portfolios and amass their evidence.
The irony is that our own educational experiences would make us demand more from the system if better portfolios was all that we could get.
Kathryn Ecclestone is senior lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of Sunderland.