OECD study exposes serious skills gaps in Europe

A major international survey of education standards has found serious skills weaknesses in European Union countries when compared to levels in other parts of the developed world.

In spite of heavy investment in higher education in recent years in the European Union, or EU, the study suggests that a fifth of the working age population has worrying low literacy and numeracy skills and a quarter of adults lack the digital skills needed to effectively use information and communication technologies.

The report, OECD Skills Outlook 2013, is the first to assess literacy, numeracy and computer-based problem-solving in the 16 to 65-year-old age group in 24 countries. It was compiled by the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies and the European Commission.

Not only is the overall level of attainment low in Europe, but there are also striking differences between countries.

Thus, while one adult in five people has low literacy or numeracy skills in Ireland, France, Poland and the UK, this rises to almost one in three in Spain and Italy.

And while more than 40% of the adult population in The Netherlands, Finland and Sweden have high problem-solving skills in ICT environments, almost one in five adults have no computer experience at all in Spain, Italy, Cyprus, Poland and Slovakia.

A surprising finding is in the area of literacy, where the results from recent upper secondary school graduates in The Netherlands and Finland “are close to or better than those of higher education graduates in Ireland, Spain, Italy, Cyprus and England and Northern Ireland”.

England and Northern Ireland also perform poorly in numeracy, ranking only 16 among the 24 countries surveyed.

The commission said that at the global level, Japan outdid all other countries, with a high share of performers at the highest levels and very few low performers.

“Big non-European economies like Canada and the United States do not score very differently from many EU countries,” it said.

Commenting on the survey, EU Commissioner for education Androulla Vassiliou said the findings pointed to “weaknesses in our education and training systems that must be addressed if we are to equip people with the high-level skills they need to succeed in life”.

It was not acceptable that that one fifth of Europe’s population had only low levels of skills. “At EU and national level, we have to invest more efficiently in better education and better training," Vassiliou said.

The findings underlined the need to target investment at improving education and training to increase skills and employability in European countries.

To this end, Brussels has called on the 27 EU member states to discuss the survey results and help identify remedies.

“The new Erasmus+ programme for education, training and youth will support projects aimed at developing and upgrading adult skills,” said the Commission.

The survey of adult skills questioned about 5,000 adults in each country on literacy, numeracy and IT problem-solving. It also assessed the use of ICT at work and in everyday life, generic skills required at work, and whether skills and qualifications matched work requirements.

Angel Gurría, OECD secretary general, wrote in the report’s foreword that the OECD Skills Outlook would provide an annual overview of how skills were being developed, activated and used across OECD and partner countries.

“If there is one central message emerging from this new survey, it is that what people know and what they do with what they know has a major impact on their life chances,” Gurría wrote.

The median hourly wage of highly skilled workers was more than 60% than those with basic skills. “Those with low literacy skills are also more than twice as likely to be unemployed. If large proportions of adults had low reading and numeracy skills, introducing productivity-improving technologies and work organisation practices could be hampered.

However, wrote Gurría, the impact of skills goes far beyond earnings and employment.

“In all countries, individuals with lower proficiency in literacy are more likely than those with better literacy skills to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and not to participate in associative or volunteer activities.

“In most countries, they are also less likely to trust others.”