Radical action is needed to counter the "unofficial ageism" in adult education, according to one of Scotland's leading proponents of lifelong learning.
John Field, in a report to the UK independent inquiry into the future of lifelong learning, delivered a powerful critique of the fact that adults wanting to get back on the learning ladder after the age of 25 find their choice is largely restricted to "narrow skills-for-work programmes".
He calls for a much wider concept of learning which would emphasise the contribution it makes to well-being and happiness.
"Learning is important to a range of well-being indicators," according to Professor Field, who is head of the centre for research in life-long learning at Stirling University. "Yet, as a nation, we tend to think of learning as something best done by the young, with a few crumbs left for people in their early years of work. Educationally, ageism begins at 25.
"There is a strong case for providing learning opportunities in subjects directly related to well-being, including depression and learning disabilities.
"This does not mean offering `happiness training' - yes, it really exists - nor dosing yourself with fish oil during tea breaks. It means getting the most from a broad range of opportunities."
The study provides evidence of the positive impact which learning can have on health and well-being for people of all ages, suggesting it may even have a greater effect than health-promotion campaigns. It cites the adult education service in Gloucestershire which works in care homes for the elderly, and the "prescription for learning" initiative in Nottingham where advisers work in three GPs' surgeries prescribing learning instead of pills.
But Professor Field's intervention comes at the time when the Scottish Funding Council, on the orders of ministers, has just told further education colleges to give priority to programmes which would help people get a job and cope with the recession, rather than "leisure and recreation provision".
He believes this is a false choice. "Training and skills development are important," he states. "But, given the dramatic pace of change in the workplace for many people, as well as the urgent pressure to work non-stop (eating at the desk, phoning from the car or train, emailing from the coffee shop), there is a strong case for looking at a new `learning life balance' for employees."
Tom Schuller, the former Edinburgh University academic who is directing the lifelong learning inquiry, comments: "Well-being is no longer regarded as a slightly wacky issue for policy-makers. It is increasingly an item of central concern, especially in a recession."