The OECD’s skills survey makes for scary reading
For anyone interested in the European Union’s economic future, a survey of adult skills published this week by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) makes for scary reading. The research did not extend to all 28 EU countries, but it included enough of them (17 states or parts of states) and the bulk of the EU’s population, that it cannot be ignored or dismissed.
The researchers surveyed the proficiency of adults (from the age of 16 upwards) in literacy, in numeracy and in problem-solving in technology-rich environments. They also looked at how those surveyed used their skills in everyday life.
As far as Europe’s economic competitiveness is concerned, surely the most disquieting results are those for literary proficiency. At the bottom of the pile, with the lowest proportions of their populations of those aged 16-65 in the top three categories of proficiency are France, Spain and Italy (the biggest countries in the eurozone after Germany). For that matter, Germany and the United Kingdom (or, more accurately, England and Northern Ireland) are below the OECD average. Spain and Italy boast the highest scores for adults who do not achieve even the first level of literacy at which someone can understand basic vocabulary, determine the meaning of sentences, read relatively short texts to locate a single piece of information that is identical to the information given in a question or instruction. In numeracy, the first level is being able to perform one-step or simple mathematical processes – counting, sorting, basic arithmetic. In these two countries, nearly three out of ten adults is at or below this level in both literacy and numeracy.
What makes this distressing snapshot worse is the information that this does not appear to be something that is going to get better over time. In some countries (Korea, Finland and the Netherlands), the proficiency of the younger adults is markedly better than that of older generations. But this does not seem to be the case for the EU’s biggest countries. For those aged 16-24, the UK ranks in the bottom three for literacy. The literacy level has barely moved, though the demands of the (international) labour market have. That does not bode well for Europe’s future.
To be clear, most of the sensible policy responses to the OECD’s data lie in the hands of national governments, not the European Union. They are the ones that control education policy, skills training, employment practices. The European Commission can urge the member states to adopt best practice – to copy the examples set by Finland and the Netherlands – but its powers of coercion are virtually nothing. Nevertheless, now that national budgets in the eurozone are the subject of review by the Commission and other member states, it is worth the EU assimilating the OECD warning that cutting investment in education – whether of adults or children – is harmful in the longer term.
Developed economies will compete through the talents and skills of their labour markets. The EU has to make better use of what it has and an important observation from the OECD is that the skills of those who migrate are frequently being underused. The data suggest that the EU cannot afford to be so wasteful.