UK has more graduates but without skills and social mobility to match

Report by OECD notes UK's 'quantum leap' in higher education access but highlights poor literacy and numeracy figures. The UK's massive expansion in university education has not led to a parallel increase in skills, an international study has discovered, with only a quarter of the country's graduates reaching the highest levels in literacy, well below other top-performing nations.

The annual education report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) notes the "quantum leap" the UK has made in higher education access – for the first time, more people now gain a university or college qualification than leave school aged 16 or 18. However, it says this has not been wholly matched by better skills, or by increased social mobility.

Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills for the Paris-based club of industrialised nations, said it was notable that while the UK had a high proportion of people with university or college qualifications – for 2012 it ranked eighth among 36 countries listed – the skill level for graduates was only average.

The increasing availability of degree courses means that for the first time the proportion of working age people with a university or college qualification, now 41% of the total, outnumbers the 37% who left school at 16 or 18. The 566-page report, somewhat hopefully titled Education at a Glance, also highlights the relatively low impact on social mobility brought by the UK's revolution in higher education.

The study ranks countries by comparing the number of people with better educational attainment than their parents against those with lower qualifications. This league table places England and Northern Ireland combined at a relatively lowly 15th out of 23 countries listed, though still above wealthy nations such as Germany and Austria.

Comparing for the first time the OECD's own skills tests against qualification levels, the organisation found 25% of university- and college-educated people in England and Northern Ireland – the only parts of the UK with comparable data – reached the top attainment levels for literacy, more or less the OECD average.

In contrast, 32% of better-educated Australians attained that level, while the figures were 36% in the Netherlands and 37% in Japan and Finland.

One possible explanation for this was the variability of post-school qualifications, said Schleicher. "Not all further education qualifications really deserve that name, because often those individuals are not actually better skilled than people who have just passed school," he said.

Nonetheless, he added, the skills gap, which is even bigger when numeracy is tested, was "a puzzle" given the stellar reputation of many UK universities, which draw disproportionate numbers of foreign students paying significant fees.

Schleicher said it could also be partly the fault of UK schools. "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."

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said the sector recognised complaints from some employers about graduates' skills, and argued that some of this was down to schooling. She added: "However, higher education can have a role in developing students in key areas of employability." Universities were addressing this challenge, she said, in part through increased links with employers such as work placements.

Schleicher said: "Access and social mobility are not the same thing. The UK has seen a huge increase is access, but it has not translated into a degree of mobility you see in places like Finland, Korea, the Russian Federation and so on."

The report notes the relatively significant UK investment in education overall. Despite the tricky financial climate, it found that from 2008-11 the UK increased public spending in education as a proportion of national income by a greater figure than any other OECD nation.

With university funding, Schleicher said, the system of students taking out publicly backed loans to pay for tuition appeared to strike a good balance between access and financial viability, even though the report only considers data up to 2011, just before annual maximum fees were raised to £9,000.

"The UK is one the very few countries that has figured out a sustainable approach to higher education funding," he said.

Despite the cost, the report argues, university education in the UK remains a good investment, with the career premium for graduates totalling about $250,000 (£155,000), and bringing an extra $130,000 (£80,000) in tax receipts for the government.

"One of the most compelling outcomes from this is that the increase in university education has not seen a decline in pay," said Schleicher, noting regular warnings of an imminent glut of British graduates. "It simply hasn't happened, year after year after year," he said. "So far it seems it seems that the demand for better skills is rising faster than supply."



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