oecd_resIt’s possible to be a graduate and not highly educated – that’s the apparent paradox coming out of the OECD’s report, Education at a Glance 2014.

It finds, in England and Northern Ireland, only a quarter of university and college educated people score highly in literacy tests. In Japan, Finland and the Netherlands it’s well over a third. In Australia it’s a third. Results in numeracy tests confirmed the OECD’s message: qualification levels do not always translate into fundamental skills.

Set against huge expansion – four in ten adults now hold a college or university qualification; in 2000 it was a quarter – this is easy fodder for the “told you so brigade” who argue some universities open their doors too readily and too many degrees have been dumbed down. It will also be seized upon by employers tired of dealing with graduates who don’t write well or handle numbers comfortably.

To add some context: the UK’s quarter of highly literate graduates put England and Northern Ireland above the OECD average, and even high performing nations produce a majority of graduates who don’t operate at this high level.

Nevertheless, the finding, widely reported in the media, is bad for the reputation of a university education and, according to the report, also has a dramatic impact on the graduate premium. It says, in England and Wales, there are large variations in the earnings of adults who have gone through university or college which seem to track their literacy skills: those scoring low in tests earn half as much as those who do well.

It is a problem to be taken seriously, but by whom? The OECD’s Director of Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, suggests, although not a problem in every university or college, there is “some lack of rigour in awarding degrees.” He also believes schools may be partly to blame,

“One of the things which may of course be true is that literacy and numeracy reflect things that you learn well before university. In Japan they build the foundations for literacy and numeracy at high school, and universities can build on this. It’s not true for the UK. This may be a reflection of this – universities assume those skills are there, but they might not be.”

The hunt for a culprit – schools or universities – has not served the mission to deliver fair access to selective universities well. It’s unlikely to be the solution here. Instead, it may pay off if the entire education service from early years to higher education made it part of their core strategy to expect, demand and enable good skills in literacy and numeracy from all their students, whatever the roots of the problem.

Universities, for their part, may have to dump an assumption, as Andreas Schleicher puts it, “those skills are there”. They could move forward by making sure they know the skill levels of each student and find ways of guaranteeing no one graduates without good foundation skills.

Secondary schools, colleges and universities might be helped if resources to instill literacy and numeracy skills were expanded. They are rightly focused on the youngest learners, but funds, policy efforts, academic research as to what works and training for teachers and lecturers may also be needed in every part of the education system.

In many universities and colleges progress in raising writing and maths skills may only come by overturning a culture of “this isn’t my job”, but graduates with poor foundation skills can’t maximize the benefits of a higher education; they can cause public and media outrage.


Sue Littlemore is a media consultant for GuildHE. Sue is an education journalist and former BBC Education Correspondent