It is easy to forget how commonplace the conscription of adults into training has become. As anyone involved in the New Deal knows, the unemployed must undertake instruction as a condition of receiving their benefit. It is not a new development, but the tip of a much larger iceberg.
In a survey of 20,667 households published by West Midlands training and enterprise councils last year, 36 per cent of workers had received some job-related education. Most of it was in areas subject to statutory regulation: 26 per cent were briefed on health and safety or environmental health matters.
In 1997, one trainer from Belfast spoke of the difficulty of motivating unemployed adults: "Some have no interest, not all of them but some, they're just parked there." Another spoke of what would, with younger people, be called "disaffection": " those sent against their will will start to wreck the place".
Some colleges have worked hard to prepare staff and provide a supportive framework to minimise disruption. Far more frequently, I suspect that lecturers are left to sink or swim.
The spread of compulsion has also distorted the training market. It has encouraged the proliferation of provision, often in the private sector, far too much of which is of uncertain quality. In a study of small firms, Lynn Martin at Coventry University hs shown that a significant minority of employers - one in eight - are reporting they have carried out training which has not actually taken place. An experience of poor quality training is the best way of switching people off adult learning. Much training - first aid at work, for example - has a remote connection with the skills and knowledge actually needed to perform a job. It all gets counted, and is duly presented as statistical evidence that industry or government really are committed to training.
So what can colleges do? First, we need to acknowledge that lifelong learning has a down side. We need to change the terms of the debate, not just to confront policy-makers with the practical consequences of their plans, but in order that colleges can tackle the challenges of teaching the new learners. That means accepting that an increasing number will not want to be there, and not always for reasons that are foolish or wrong-headed.
Second, colleges should consider how best to support staff. There are plenty of examples of good practice. An open debate of the problems will make it much easier to share the lessons. Then, and only then, will we be able to ensure that widening participation really does mean lifelong learning for all.
The author is professor of lifelong learning at the University of Warwick