The Prime Minister has given details of free education for people over 40 who have not got five GCSEs or equivalent.
Some courses will have to close, colleges warn
Tony Blair said adults returning to education would soon find it much easier to get a second chance.
"We will pay for them to do that in later life," he said in a speech at Jaguar's assembly plant in Coventry.
Under a pilot scheme due to start this autumn, adult learners will be able to take courses for basic qualifications without paying the usual fees.
"We have several million people in this country at the moment who have not attained that level.
"That is a huge drag anchor on the skills base in this country."
The programme will be piloted in the South East and North East of England this autumn, Tony Blair announced, and is due to be rolled out nationally from next year.
The government hopes up to a million adults will sign up.
Vocations, vocations, vocations
Tony Blair also said the government planned to put more emphasis on vocational education so that Britain would stop having to look overseas for workers with technological expertise.
"When I said education, education, education, everyone thought I meant schools and that is what I meant in 1997," the Prime Minister said.
"That has changed now. The next part of our programme has to be to give the same emphasis to vocational skills as we gave to academic skills.
"It has to change significantly the way we approach vocational education in school.
"We have to incentivise people to go back and gain the skills they need."
Mike Tomlinson's review into education for 14 to 19 year olds promotes vocational learning.
His final report is due in the autumn.
The pledge for free adult education was first made in the government's Skills Strategy, published last year.
The government said this would be one of its funding priorities, together with education for 16 to 18 year olds and adult basic skills (literacy and numeracy).
Colleges later warned that there was not enough money in the sector to cover the plans, saying some courses would have to close and that fees for others would have to rise to make up the shortfall.
A spokesman for the Association of Colleges, which represents 400 colleges said: "Cuts are being made at all levels of adult education and training across the country to fund this scheme.
"For 2003-04, the association estimates some 70,000 adult places are being cut - the equivalent to the whole intake of over-19s on Government's Apprenticeship Programme."
The shadow education secretary, Tim Yeo, said the government's failure to meet its own attainment targets in schools, and the continued presence of a major skills gap in the economy, prove that Labour was failing.
Its own education department's survey estimated that 5.2 million adults lacked basic literacy skills, and 15 million adults lacked basic numerical skills.
Employers lamented the lack of basic skills.
"In order for Britain to remain competitive and a leading economic power, the skills gap in the British work force must be addressed," he said.