‘Huge drop’ in literacy levels of Irish university graduates – OECD study

Up to 6% of Irish university graduates are functionally illiterate

Up to 6 per cent of Irish university graduates are functionally illiterate, according to latest international research.

These rates, contained in an OECD study, are significantly higher than in Finland (2 per cent) or the Netherlands (3 per cent), though are similar to the UK (7 per cent).

Low levels of basic literacy, or functional illiteracy, refer to reading and writing skills that are “inadequate to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level”.

Dirke Van Damme, a senior official at the OECD's directorate for education and skills, said these figures represented a "huge drop" in literacy levels of graduates between the mid-1990s and 2012.


This occurred during a time when the proportion of people going to third level has increased significantly.

In addition, only 19 per cent of university graduates in Ireland reach higher levels of numeracy, which is considered an important benchmark for innovation and building a strong economy.

This is significantly lower than in countries such as Finland (37 per cent), the Netherlands (35 per cent) and England (25 per cent).

The figures are contained in a technical report which formed part of an OECD survey of adult skills.

The data, gathered in 2012, involved international assessments of 25-64 year-old university graduates .

Mr Van Damme said the figures were “not good for Ireland” and indicated that university qualifications were not necessarily a guarantee against very low skills .

“The fact that we have more higher education graduates does not mean that the economy and society is well served by the skills they need,” he said.

While the Government's aim is to have the best education and training system in Europe by 2026, Mr Van Damme said these figures showed Ireland was performing "around the middle".

“There is certainly a need for much better data on what students are actually learning in terms of skills in universities – that’s a very important question,” he said.

Despite the OECD findings, latest employers’ surveys indicate that most businesses are happy with the standard of Irish graduates, while the vast majority of graduates are in employment within months of finishing college.

Quality of skills

Mr Van Damme said these were not necessarily good indicators of the quality of graduates’ skills.

He was speaking at a seminar at the Royal Irish Academy on Wednesday on how to optimise Irish post-secondary education and training to meet skills needs.

Tom Boland, the former chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, said "snobbery" lay at the heart of the structure of the system.

“It is deeply fractured along lines that owe much to traditions of prejudice and status consciousness,” he said.

“At the top of the status hierarchy stands higher education, and within that sector, for many the universities stand above the institutes of technology. Below the institutes come apprenticeships and further education.”

Instead, he said, the Government should consider bringing the entire post-second level system under a single funding and regulatory agency by merging Solas and the Higher Education Authority.

Tom Fowler, chief executive of a body in New Zealand which has combined responsibility for further and higher education and training, said the system had worked well so far.

He said the single agency had helped make the system become more agile in meeting skills needs, as well as giving it a distance from central government.

However, Mr Van Damme said the experience of jurisdictions such as Germany had been that a diversity of institutions could also be flexible in meeting skills needs.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent