Adult education requires a national plan to define learners' needs, marshal resources and develop strategies for delivery, according to the University and College Union.
Its Manifesto for Adult Learning describes adult education as an "irreducible characteristic" of life, work and culture in the 21st century and says it is a public service that should be funded as such.
Adult education should form a "continuum of provision", from the most basic and informal learning to the most advanced, specialised and formal training, says the document which will be debated at a UCU conference next week.
Dan Taubman, the union's national further education official, said: "For far too long the only rationale for adult learning has been the economic rationale. We have tried to build a vision for adult learning that's also about empowering people and building democracy."
The manifesto is partly a riposte to cuts in adult education that do not lead to qualifications. The Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning estimates a loss of up to 2 million places since 2005. The latest government statistics indicate most have gone from courses below level 2, with a drop from 1.03 million learners in 2005-06 to 526,000 learners (provisionally) in 2007-08.
The manifesto calls for sufficient funding to maintain high-quality teaching, buildings and learning resources. It also calls for fee remission policies for some learners, greater public subsidy for qualifications up to level 3, an increase in learner support funds, interest-free student loans and financial support to cover maintenance costs.
The role of adult learning tutors as professionals should be recognised and valued, it says, and their status should be underpinned by proper initial training and continuing professional development.
The adult curriculum must take into account that people learn in different ways, in different places and across a wide range of qualification levels, the manifesto says.
It calls for a statutory right to five days a year of paid education leave for all employees that can be accumulated and taken in longer blocks.
UCU's conference on `Adult Learning: the UCU Vision', is on April 30 at Birkbeck College, London.