Adult learners in the UK spend less time in learning, on average, than their counterparts in every other country in the developed world.
A typical adult student will devote just 46 hours a year in what the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) calls "non-formal education", which covers everything outside the continuous "ladder" of education for children and young people.
The figures, published in the international body's annual report, Education at a glance, show that the average learner in a developed country spends 80 hours a year studying.
High unemployment can boost the average time, as individuals need more intensive skills development and have more time. But the best performer, Korea, where the average time spent studying is 132 hours a year, also has low unemployment at about 4 per cent.
While the intensity of participation is markedly low in the UK, the numbers involved in some form of study paint the UK in a far better light. With 49 per cent of 25- to 64-year-olds in learning, it has the fifth highest participation rate, beaten only by Sweden, New Zealand, Switzerland and Finland.
The UK also displays less inequality than most, as adults with degrees are only twice as likely as those with poor secondary educational attainment to be learning in later life, compared to three times elsewhere. The worst offender is Poland, where those with degrees are 10 times more likely to continue studying.
Tom Schuller, former education research head for the OECD and director of the Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning, said compulsory short training courses in health and safety may boost the adult learning participation rate in the UK without necessarily offering much educational benefit.
"What does it add up to?" he said. "The effort now should be not so much on volume but the unequal distribution of access to education and the ways in which training enables people to make progress in the quality of their work."
The report said: "To increase participation in adult learning, effective information, guidance and counselling services can help create accessible learning environments, support learning at all ages and in a range of settings, and empower citizens to manage their learning and work. A special goal is to reach out to information- and assistance-deprived groups."
The UK was ranked one of the better performing countries for advice and guidance, however, with just 28 per cent of adults having no contact with the adult education system.
The news comes as Niace, the adult education body, announced the first results of the Government's Transformation Fund for encouraging community- run learning projects in the wake of the loss of 1.5 million adult education places in colleges to fund Train to Gain.
Niace claimed an extra 1.1 million adults took part in some form of learning as a result of funding 300 projects with pound;20 million of Government grants.
It said the fund's first seven months demonstrated that even small amounts of cash could galvanise voluntary organisations and education providers to create new opportunities for learning.