Britain is in denial about its ageing population - and its learning needs.
That is one of the many stark messages from Learning Through Life, the report from the pound;1 million, two-year inquiry into the future for lifelong learning in the UK. It concludes that the public and private sectors have ignored a sweeping demographic change and funded education as if it is something only for the young.
The figures are startling. The authors, led by Tom Schuller, former head of the centre for educational research and innovation at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), calculated that a total of about pound;55 billion is spent each year on education and training in the UK for over-18s. But 86 per cent of adult education spending goes on 18 to 25-year-olds.
The money is front-loaded to an enormous degree. While under-25s can expect to receive training worth more than pound;8,000 a year on average; between 25 and 50, that sum falls to pound;283; at 50, spending drops to pound;86 per person; at 75, it falls to just pound;60.
Mr Schuller, a former head of continuing education at Edinburgh University, said one reason spending was so biased was that Britain was in denial about its ageing population. "Many people don't want to think about the fact that we are all getting older," he said.
To redress the balance of funding, the inquiry proposes a modest change. At today's level of spending, it would represent an extra pound;3.2bn for over- 25s. The average spend for 25 to 50-year-olds could rise to pound;380, with a total spend of pound;8.2bn. The 50 to 75-year-olds would receive pound;2.2bn, (pound;135 each). And the proposed spending on the over-75s would double to pound;550m (pound;116 each).
"You can call it modest, but it is something that will make a real difference," Mr Schuller said. "We think this is a reasonable degree of adjustment over the next decade."
The authors insist this need not be at the expense of funding for compulsory schooling or higher education, partly because the numbers of young people are declining, so per capita spending can be maintained with a smaller share of the funds.
But funding is not the inquiry's only diagnosis of failings in the system. Problems begin with schooling, where children too often leave without basic skills or qualifications and are not prepared for a lifetime of learning. Teacher training should include a component on lifelong learning to help instil a desire for learning, the inquiry recommends.
The 280-page report also notes the unclear political responsibility for lifelong learning, although there is now a sharp contrast between the different home countries. In England, for example, it rests with a variety of Whitehall departments; in Scotland, education and lifelong learning have been combined in one ministerial portfolio since the SNP formed the government in 2007 (after eight years when lifelong learning was the responsibility of the enterprise department).
The inquiry's prescription includes a series of entitlements which it envisages being provided via learning accounts. Everyone should have the legal right to free basic skills education, it proposes. Central to the vision is a flexible, transferable credit system which allows students to study at their own pace, transfer between further and higher education and between institutions.
The inquiry envisages a future where the distinction between full-time and part-time study disappears, as students take on only as much study as fits into their life and work.
This would represent a dramatic shift in the UK's education ethos. "Now, 90 per cent of student support is for full-time undergraduates in HE and only 10 per cent for part-time students," Mr Schuller said.
Key recommendations use a four-stage model for lifelong learning age groups: 18-25, 25-50, 50-75, 75+
- rebalance funding to give equivalent of pound;3.2 billion to post-25 education at today's level of spending
- enhance training and education for 50 to 75-year-olds, raising it from 2.5 per cent to 4 per cent of total spending - up to an pound;800 million increase at today's rate of funding
- make 75 the standard end of working age and create an "authentic educational offer" for later life
- create new set of entitlements: a legal right to free literacy and numeracy training at all ages, free minimum qualification for the modern economy where it is affordable, and encourage industry to adopt entitlements to learning leave as part of their professional standards
- provide entitlements through learning accounts
- introduce transferable credit system, allowing learning at students' pace and a change to career track
- provide "citizen's curriculum", giving adults information about the digital world, health, finance, and civic life
- give local authorities a strategic role in planning lifelong learning
- make one government department the lead for cross-departmental issues
- birthday bonuses every decade to top up students' learning accounts
- offer prisoners learning credits on their release to help them resettle.