THE vast majority of students are leaving higher education in the UK without the highest levels of literacy, an international study suggested yesterday.
Just one in four reaches the highest standards in the basics, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) annual education report.
Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director for education and skills, said the findings indicate that, while more people in the UK are getting qualifications, this is not matched by better reading and writing skills. He suggested the picture was similar for numeracy.
The latest Education at a Glance study reveals that a student in the UK is now more likely to go to university than they are to finish their education when they leave school.
In 2012, just over two in five (41 per cent) of 25 to 64-year-olds held a degree or equivalent qualification, while 37 per cent stopped studying after gaining their GCSEs or A-levels.
It also shows that in 2012, the last year for which data is available, 48 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds in the UK had been to university or college, compared to 33 per cent of 55 to 64-year-olds.
But while more people are continuing their education, the report suggests this is not reflected in better basic skills.
The data, which draws on international tests conducted by the OECD, shows that just 25 per cent of graduates have the highest levels of ability in literacy. In many high-performing countries – including Australia, Finland, Japan and Sweden – more than a third of graduates are performing at this level.
“On the one hand in the UK, you can say qualification levels have risen enormously, lots more people are getting tertiary qualifications, university degrees, but actually not all of that is visible in better skills,” Mr Schleicher said. “In the UK, it’s at best a middle position. Quality and degrees do not always align.
“There’s also a big distribution in outcomes. What’s interesting is when you look at people with tertiary qualifications, there’s a lot of variability in the skills those people have attained. Not all further education qualifications really deserve that name because often those individuals are not actually better skilled than people who have just come out of school.”
The figures cover not just university degrees, but any type of higher or tertiary qualification.
Mr Schleicher said he would have expected the UK to perform better in literacy.
He said: “UK universities have a very strong reputation – you would have expected this stronger prevalence among the most highly skilled people.”
In general, literacy and numeracy skills can reflect what a student has learnt at school before they go on to higher education, Mr Schleicher said, adding that universities may assume that students have these abilities when they could be better.
The latest report shows that around a third of 25 to 34-year-olds have achieved a higher level of education than their mothers and fathers, but adds that parents’ level of education still has a strong influence on a child’s educational achievement.
An individual whose parents hold a degree is more than six times more likely to go into higher education themselves than someone whose parents did not gain GCSEs.