OECD questions UK graduates’ literacy and numeracy

Piaac survey also calls comparability of degree standards into question

October 10, 2013

A study showing that UK university degrees sometimes fail to give people better skills than school-leavers in other countries will provide an “inspiring source for future analysis”, according to a senior figure at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s deputy director for education and skills, spoke at a press briefing on the organisation’s first survey of adult skills.

The audit tested the literacy, numeracy, problem-solving and other key skills of more than 150,000 people aged 16 to 65 across 24 countries.

The study - which includes measurements of the skills of university graduates in different nations - follows in the footsteps of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which measures the performance of school pupils.

Known as the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (Piaac), the new OECD survey could “maybe one day become something like a Pisa for adults”, Mr Schleicher told reporters in London on 7 October.

England and Northern Ireland (referred to as the UK in the study) fare poorly, ranking 13th in literacy and 16th in numeracy, while Japan comes top in both.

However, the UK scores much better on criteria measuring whether people use their skills at work - suggesting that it is able to extract maximum value from a limited skills base.

Degree comparability questioned

In comments that may worry some universities, Mr Schleicher said that the Piaac shows that “more education doesn’t automatically translate into better skills, better jobs, better lives”.

He highlighted one of his presentation slides, which he said showed that Japanese school-leavers do as well as UK university graduates in terms of literacy and numeracy.

He said that such results would be “a very inspiring source for future analysis”, showing that having a university degree is one thing, “but what’s really important is where you got it and how you got it”.

Japanese and Dutch 25-34-year-old high school graduates “easily outperform Italian or Spanish university graduates of the same age”, the report says.

“Skills and qualifications are two different things. We’ve got to put more emphasis on the skills people actually have,” Mr Schleicher added.

Asked by Times Higher Education to expand on his comments, he said that until now there had been an assumption that if someone held a qualification such as a PhD, then they had achieved a certain skills level no matter where they had earned their degree.

“But actually what we now can see is that the value of that degree, in terms of literacy and number skills at least, varies a lot across countries,” Mr Schleicher said.

He added: “A lot of universities will say [they are] not teaching literacy and numeracy skills: [they are] teaching a lot of other very specific skills that we haven’t measured. That’s true.

“But at the same time you would expect…a correlation between your generic capacity to manage, access and integrate information and those kind of specific skills.”


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