The OECD tested more than 150,000 people aged 16 to 65 in 24 countries for the study, entitledProgramme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (Piaac).
It is billed as having the potential to become an adult equivalent to the organisation’s influential Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings, which measure the performance of school pupils.
The Piaac could have significant implications for universities, as it includes measurements of the skills performance of graduates in different nations.
Although the UK (meaning England and Northern Ireland in the OECD’s study) scored below average on literacy and numeracy, the study also measures whether people are using their skills in work – and there the UK fares much better.
Andreas Schleicher, OECD deputy director for education, told a press briefing in London yesterday that countries like the US and UK are “very good at extracting the maximum out of limited skills bases”.
Individuals “that are highly skilled get a lot out of this, those that are poorly skilled pay a high price”, he said.
However, Japan, which came top on both literacy and numeracy, is only “so so” at using its citizens’ skills, Mr Schleicher added.
For literacy and numeracy, the study produces a ranking based on the mean average of the percentage of 16 to 65 year olds scoring at each proficiency level.
In literacy, the UK was ranked 13th, ahead of Germany and the US in 15th and 16th respectively. But that was behind a top five of Japan, Finland, the Netherlands, Australia and Sweden.
In numeracy, the UK fared worse, in 16th place, although still outperforming the US in 21st place. The top five nations were Japan, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway.
The study also finds that across all participating nations, adults with level 4 or 5 literacy (the highest levels) are three times as likely to enjoy high wages as those with level 1 literacy.
“Those with lower skills proficiency also tend to report poorer health, lower civic engagement and less trust,” the report says.
“What you know and what you do with what you know has a major impact on your life chances,” said Mr Schleicher.