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OECD Report suggests some higher education students lack basic skills

This article was previously published on the Leadership Foundation website.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published a review of skills in England. The report highlights the relative weakness in numeracy and literacy (English and maths), amongst young people in England when compared to other OECD countries.

Contrary to popular perception the report notes those with low skills are a surprisingly varied group. One in ten university students have numeracy or literacy levels below Level 2. This proportion rises to one in five students on shorter post secondary qualifications at Level 4 and 5, for example, higher national certificates or diplomas. Indeed, the OECD identifies the primary expansion of student numbers between 1998/99 and 2011/12 as being driven by institutions with medium or low entry requirements.

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) typically assume entrants have acquired good core academic skills during their period of compulsory education. Few institutions give specific attention to lower levels of literacy or numeracy for students studying on higher education programmes. As a result weaknesses in basic skills are not resolved at the point of graduation.

As stronger basic skills are strongly correlated with improved employment prospects, the OECD suggests that students with low skills are likely to gain greater benefit from being diverted onto programmes which address their weaknesses in basic skills, rather than than going onto higher education programmes.  Such an approach would reduce higher education student numbers, at least in the short term, and increase numbers attending further education.

In the light of the OECD report governors of HEIs may wish to seek assurance that if their institution is engaged in a strategy of expanding its student numbers, this is not being achieved through diluting the quality of the student entry, with subsequent risks to the institution’s record of employability.

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