Wednesday 23 October 2019

Literacy standards among Irish graduates have dropped significantly - OECD

Leaving Cert students (stock image)
Leaving Cert students (stock image)
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Literacy standards among Irish graduates have dropped significantly over a 20-year period according to an education expert from the international think-tank, the OECD.

The same expert warned that growing numbers of employers no longer trust university qualifications to tell them that potential employees had essential skills such as literacy and numeracy.

“If you hire university graduates you think that person can read and write and calculate and that is not the case; that guarantee is no longer,” said Dirk Van Damme, head of division in the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills.

Citing OECD findings about Ireland, Mr Van Damme said the country suffered  the  third biggest fall since the 1990s in basic reading and writing skills among university  graduates, aged 25-64,  to a point where 6pc – one in 17 -  were ‘functionally illiterate’.

The figure is based on data gathered across the developed world in 2012, and compared with 2pc or 3pc in Finland or the Netherlands.   The UK figure was 7pc.

Meanwhile, only 19pc of Irish graduates aged 25-64 reached higher levels of numeracy,  compared with 37pc in Finland, 35pc on the Netherlands, 26pcv in Flemish Belgium and 25pc in the England.

Mr Van Damme drew a distinction between qualifications and skills and said increasing numbers of employers did not see university qualifications as being a “trustworthy carrier of relevant skills.”

He said a lack of trust in qualifications, as well as issues such as grade inflation, was leading to the use of credentials, such as profiles on the professional networking platform LinkedIn, in recruitment.

Speaking at a seminar in Dublin on meeting skills needs, organised by education consultants BH Associates, he said a qualifications did not provide a guarantee against low skill levels and the variation between countries was huge.

Mr Van Damme said the data about graduate skills available to the OECD was limited, “but they do show that qualifications are at best very untrustworthy equivalents to skills that employers and societies value”

He said while universities had enjoyed a monopoly around the use of their credentials for graduate recruitment, this was changing and employers saw qualifications as a threshold for foundation skills.”

While many would see instilling literacy and numeracy as functions of earlier stages of the education system, Mr Van Damme said the universities had a responsibility.

He said universities come at the end of chain and “of course are confronted with all the  previous problems, but what they deliver should be trustworthy.  If they jeopardise that, they face a huge problem of trustworthiness”.

Mr Van Damme said there was very limited  data on the relationship between qualifications and skills and he was critical of universities for resisting independent assessments of the learning outcomes of students

“Universities still ask unconditional confidence in their assessment function; and for disciplinary, technical skills they probably have good arguments. But for generic skills, things are less clear.

He said universities were resisting attempts at independent assessments of the learning outcomes of their students with the result is that employers, governments and society had almost no evidence on the skills equivalent of qualifications earned by students”.

He said the OECD was still trying to get an assessment of core generic learning outcomes of university graduates off the ground, focussing on n critical thinking skills. “We see this as the only valuable way to get out of the unfruitful clash between qualifications and skills.”

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