One in eight places in adult education disappeared last year as the Government's shift in funding priorities continued to take effect.
The latest estimates from the Office of National Statistics show that the number of over-19s in education fell by 225,000 last year. It follows an even larger drop of 675,000 the year before and means the projected fall in adult student numbers has been exceeded two years early.
The oldest age groups have been hit hardest - the numbers of over-60s in education have halved in just two years, and the numbers of over-50s have fallen by over 40 per cent.
Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, said two thirds of jobs filled in the next 10 years will be taken by people who are currently adults. He said: "This is a year-on-year decimation of the adult education system.
"All the gains of the last 10 years are now lost except for the welcome increases in literacy, language and numeracy learners and the modest improvements in workplace learning. It's too high a price to pay. These figures show that adult learning provision has been devastated over the past two years."
Although the Government claims to have "safeguarded" adult and community learning with a pound;210 million-a-year budget, the numbers of students in this category have fallen by a quarter within two years, Mr Tuckett said.
John Brennan, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said colleges were responding to the Government's priorities to meet targets for 16 to 19-year-olds, full level two qualifications and basic skills.
But he said the rate of decline in adult education was worrying. "If we are to match the ambitious targets for closing the nation's skills gap, as set down by the Leitch Report and echoed by the Government, this decline needs to be rapidly reversed," he said.