. It says the proposal, dubbed "earn or learn", will cover 18- to 21-year-olds and is being sold as a tough crackdown on the culture of easy benefits.
That's one way of looking at it. The other is that it effectively extends maintenance grants for learning to the "other 50 per cent" who don't got to university. Presumably that's why Labour MP and former education select committee chair Barry Sheerman has long favoured a change like this. It'll be interesting to see how Labour responds to this initiative, something that very much resembles a Youth Training Scheme for the post-raising-the-participation-era.
No college for old men: November 19 2012
The over-50s have been driven out of colleges and onto the internet, according to new research by Niace, which suggests learning for older people is increasingly becoming a solitary activity.
A survey of more than 4,600 people aged over 50 showed that the numbers studying in college fell from 21 per cent in 2005 to just eight per cent in 2012. The fall wasn't entirely unexpected: it's a result of the previous Government's reduction of funding for leisure learning, dismissed as flower arranging and holiday Spanish.
What ministers hoped was that informal learning would fill the gap. And to an extent, it has: an increasingly digitally-savvy older generation has increased the amount of learning it does online. More than one in eight are now learning through the internet - the number was so low in 2005 that the question was not even asked.
The survey found an overall rise in independent, self-organised learning but it warned that the trend was not necessarily positive, with learners missing out on the social benefits. "Government policy has led, directly and indirectly, to a major withdrawal by FE and HE institutions from provision for older people," Stephen McNair, author of the Niace report, wrote. "While much of the gap seems to be taken up by private and voluntary activity, it is not clear that the same needs are being met, or that this is necessarily the most effective way of achieving broader social policy goals."
Overall, about one in five older people were involved in learning, with computing as the most popular subject. For those still in work, health and social work were the leading subjects, while retirees tended to chose arts and languages.
Employers appear more willing than ever to invest in older workers: the number of over-55s on courses paid for by employers rose from just under a quarter to just over a third.
Mr McNair predicted that learning for older people was likely to become increasingly common: the generation now in their 40s had much wider access to higher education, and people with more education were much more likely to continue learning.
For more on this story read the NIACE report