Learning for older people is in danger of becoming like golf - only available as a leisure pursuit for those who can afford it, the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education has warned.
It welcomed the Government's announcement of a freephone information service, the Learning Line from September. But it warned cuts in local authority budgets, and a possible freeze in further education funding were "a double whammy for all adults wanting to return to learn".
"Despite last year's European Year of Lifelong Learning, and much rhetoric about planning lifelong learning services for all, it seems no one is willing to invest in growth," say Shiela Carlton and Jim Soulsby from NIACE's Older and Bolder initiative.
They say there's a danger that provision for adults will continue to reduce and the cuts will have most impact on those who have least: disabled and older people will lose their creative writing courses, computing and language classes.
"The vital gateway into mainstream learning programmes provided by the informal adult education system will be closed."
The authors, writing in the latest Older and Bolder newsletter, say work with older people should be more central and valued. Students should be seen as individuals, not stereotyped as a "grey mass".
Older and Bolder will encourage good teaching and learning; better policy and spending decisions and wider participation. As there is little information about numbers of over-50s in adult education, they appealed to institutions to monitor the age profile of students, discover how they gained access and their progress to other courses by creating "climbing frames of opportunities" for older adults, and include them in colleges' strategic plans.
Education is beneficial for health and wealth, they argue. A 69-year-old widow, for example, could improve her self-image and confidence through learning, reduce the likelihood of becoming dependent on others, come to terms with bereavement and motivate her children or grandchildren to learn.
Older and Bolder newsletter, free, from NIACE, 21 De Montfort Street, Leicester LE1 7GE, also contains details of regional contacts for developing informal partnerships.