One in two women in the UK now have university degrees / PA


The drive to send more British people to university has failed to produce a rise in literacy and numeracy skills, a major international study has revealed.

Britain now has one of the highest rates of university participation in the world – yet only one in four of those students reach the highest levels of literacy, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Many students fail to improve their key skills at all during their degrees.

The findings immediately threw a question mark over the target of 50 per cent participation in higher education advocated by Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister.

“I think the massive expansion – more particularly in response to the Blair target declared in 1999 – led to a climate where it was good to go to university and it was important to get a degree irrespective of what it was in and where it was taken,” said Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment research at Buckingham University.

“That message needs to be changed by the intervention of employers saying ‘study this and you’ll get a really good highly rewarding job and we will ensure that’s the case’.”

The one in four figure for UK students with the highest standards in literacy compared to 37 per cent in Finland and Japan, 36 per cent in the Netherlands, 34 per cent in Sweden and 32 per cent in Australia.

“On the one hand in the UK you can say qualification levels have risen enormously. lots more people are getting tertiary qualifications, university degrees, but actually not all of that is visible in better skills,” said the OECD’s director general of education and skills Andreas Schleicher.

“In the UK’s global knowledge-based economy, where 80 per cent of new jobs are in high-skilled areas, employers are demanding more from their graduates, requiring them to be forward-thinking, problem-solving and entrepreneurial,” he added.

Mr Schleicher said that he would have expected the UK to perform better at the highest levels of literacy. “UK universities have a very strong reputation – you would have expected this stronger prevalence among the most highly skilled people.”

Professor Steve West, chairman of the University Alliance – made up of universities specialising in science, technology, design and the professions, said that it “shared the report’s concerns that the increase in university education had not led to better-skilled graduates”.

The report went on to reveal that one in two women in the UK now have university degrees. The latest figure for participation amongst 25 to 34-year-olds show 41 per cent going into higher education – with only 37 per cent quitting education at the end of secondary schooling. “This is a historic high [of young people attending university] for the UK,” the report adds.

Responding to the OECD report, the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said more students were now studying subjects at school which would “open doors for them in the future”. She said she was “committed to going further faster” towards creating an education system where all young people regardless of background could flourish.