The phrase "lifelong learning" trips easily off the tongue but it has explosive implications. It could herald the most dramatic changes in Britain's education system since the Victorian age.
"Changes in work and technology now taking place are as far-reaching as those of the Industrial Revolution," says Frank Coffield, director of the Learning Society programme at Newcastle University. "They mean everyone in work needs continually to retrain."
The education system must be radically transformed to cater for the demand for retraining and reskilling, many now argue. Fierce competition from increasingly global world markets, rapid technological change and dramatic shrinking of old industries mean learning must no longer be something young people do at school and university and then stop doing when they take a job. It must be something everyone does throughout their life, so schools, colleges and universities must become much more flexible institutions.
The facts behind the lifetime learning revolution are alarming. Only around four in 10 people in the British workforce now have qualifications at national vocational qualification level 3, equal to two GCSE A-levels. And woefully slow progress is being made on the Government-backed national targets to raise the figure to 60 per cent by 2000. The latest figures show less than one per cent rise in the past year.
Many advocates of lifetime learning criticise the current "front-end-loaded" system of education spending, with the vast bulk going into schools and school-leavers. The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education argues that the grants system which pays for school-leavers on full-time courses but forces older people to pay their own way must change. More money for part-time students would encourage both unemployed people and those with jobs to improve their skills and qualifications.
Other measures called for by NIACE include extending a pilot scheme in which unemployed people are not barred from studying by the benefit rules, and imposing a training levy on employers.
David Hargreaves, professor of education at Cambridge University, says that as a first step towards changing the way universities focus almost totally on 18-21-year-olds finishing their education, 20 per cent of places should go to people aged 27 and over.
He recommends a massive increase in the money given to employers to provide education and training for their workers. That way, he says, it will be spent directly on courses which are relevant and useful. "Vast sums have been wasted on education and training because it was a way of keeping kids off the streets or off the unemployment register," he says. "But it just produces people who have been on courses, many of them turned off education and training because they can see it doesn't lead to a job."
The Training and Enterprise Councils also back a move to change the funding of study grants. The TEC National Council has called for 15 per cent of the Pounds 11bn now funding higher education, about Pounds 1.5 billion, to go instead towards helping older workers upgrade their skills, saying this would help raise the skill levels for those who do not now have an NVQ level three or equivalent.
The establishment of the TECs in the 1990s was an early move towards recognising the need for upgrading Britain's skills base and linking it directly to the needs of the labour market. The TECs, close to local employers and pragmatic in their approach to training, see themselves playing a major role.
Several other steps have already been taken to reflect changes in attitudes towards the links between education, training and work. The Government's education and employment departments were merged in 1995 to create the Department of Education and Employment. Sir Ron Dearing has strongly recommended moves to give work-based and academic qualifications parity of esteem. And the two organisations dealing with the school curriculum and training - the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and National Council for Vocational Qualifications - will be relaunched in the autumn under one name.
Dr Nick Tate, the new organistion's chief executive, sees the role of the new Qualifications and Curriculum Authority as crucial. ""It will force us to think about the relationship between the different bits of education and training for people of all ages."
A shift is already taking place in the approach taken by teachers towards learning, Dr Tate says, reflecting the changing needs of a modern high-tech economy. Instead of teaching pupils only a defined curriculum, many are concentrating more on equipping them to manage their own learning.
Attitudes of potential learners are also crucial. A survey by the Campaign for Learning - launched last year to promote a learning society and backed by a range of educational organisations and major employers - found that although nearly half of those questioned said they would like to take part in some kind of educational or training activity, a disturbing two-thirds thought it unlikely they would do so in the following 12 months.
The campaign, headed by former RSA director of learning Sir Christopher Ball, is making plans to promote the value of learning. No one underestimates the task at hand.