A European Union survey of 19,500 people found that nearly three-quarters said they wanted to carry on with education or training throughout their lives, but only 22 per cent had actually taken a course of study in the past year.
Britons, along with the Greeks and Danes, showed the most interest in continuing to learn. Three-quarters of Britons believe that the EU should be involved in lifetime learning, compared with the European average of 65 per cent.
But this inquiry into European attitudes by Eurobarometer, which regularly surveys people's views on current EU issues, resulted in a more optimistic picture of the UK's position than a new survey by the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education. Both have been published this week - the UK's Adult Learners' Week - and aim to highlight the European Year of Lifelong Learning.
Results from NIACE interviews with more than 5,000 adults, including for the first time a sample of 511 from Northern Ireland, indicated that Britain is becoming even more polarised into a nation of educated people and non-learners.
Four out of five people in the UK who have not returned to learn are unlikely ever to do so, whereas those who are studying expect to do more, concludes NIACE.
Alan Tuckett, director of NIACE, said: "We are storing up trouble for the future - if at first you don't succeed, you don't succeed."
The UK survey found that nearly 25 per cent of people over the age of 17 were involved in learning; more men than women took part; and two in five adults had participated in the past three years.
Almost twice the proportion of people in Yorkshire as in Northern Ireland (52 per cent compared with 28 per cent) went to classes. Half the adults in the East Midlands were learners compared to 35 per cent of people in the West Midlands.
In Scotland adult participation has risen by 16 per cent over the past six years and by 12 per cent in the North of England. Wales was static, the South-east declined by 2 per cent, the South-west declined by 6 per cent and the West Midlands by 11 per cent.
The only real growth over the past six years has been among 17 to 19-year-olds with 42 per cent studying full time, largely due to the decline in the job market, says the report.
Participation varied sharply with social class. Twice as many white-collar workers as skilled manual workers are studying and the trend is widening. Nearly half of the sample returned to learn for work-related reasons, 36 per cent for personal development and 12 per cent because they wanted qualifications.
The EU survey of all 15 member countries found that 94 per cent of British people said that continual education and training would improve their working lives - the highest percentage in the member states. However, only half felt it was absolutely necessary.
A third of respondents had been involved in some form of training in the past 12 months - the third highest in Europe with 10 per cent at the behest of their employer. Three-quarters thought the state should foot the bill for training, but almost half said employers should pay. And 69 per cent were prepared to contribute towards the cost of their courses.
The survey found that the Danes were the most industrious with 45 per cent having taken a course recently. Swedish and British adults were the keenest on languages with 12 per cent anxious to learn one.
Finns showed the greatest desire to improve their qualifications - 68 per cent compared with 16 per cent of the Irish. The Irish were top in taking a non-utilitarian approach with almost half saying they wanted to carry on learning to improve their general knowledge. And 91 per cent, again the highest in Europe, thought that continual learning would improve their personal lives.
Although Europeans were basically happy with their schooling, the survey found a north-south divide with 89 per cent of Finns satisfied in contrast with 58 per cent of Greeks. Fifteen to 24-year-olds were generally more contented with their education. Again the Finns were the most satisfied (90 per cent) and the French the least (67 per cent).
FE Focus, page 23