Executive summary

Key findings

Australia’s overall performance in the PIAAC Survey of Adult Skills, which is a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), across literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments ranges from average to very good.

However, one in five Australians – around three million adults – have low literacy and/or numeracy skills, according to the PIAAC Survey of Adult Skills, which was conducted in Australia from October 2011 to March 2012. For the purposes of this report, adults with low literacy or numeracy skills are not able to reach Level 2 proficiency in literacy or numeracy on a scale that goes up to Level 5.

Australia has a similar share of adults with low literacy and/or numeracy skills as New Zealand. It has a smaller proportion of adults with low skills than the United States, the United Kingdom (England and Northern Ireland) and most European Mediterranean countries but a larger share than Nordic countries, Japan, and the Netherlands.

Taken together, although Australia’s average results are not poor, the challenges presented by adults with low basic skills may lead to Australia being left behind in terms of innovation and economic growth by countries that have been more successfully investing in the skills of all their people.

A closer examination of Australia’s performance reveals the following:

  • Numeracy represents a particular challenge in Australia.

  • Signs of poor numeracy performance can be traced back to initial schooling.

  • Women have weaker numeracy skills than men.

  • There is a relatively large gap between the most proficient and least proficient adults in literacy and in numeracy.

  • Many well-educated adults have low literacy and/or numeracy skills.

  • Young women in Australia are much more likely to be not in employment, education or training (NEET) than young men.

Strengths of the Australian system

While the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) shows that Australia needs to strengthen some aspects of its skills system to achieve better outcomes, the results also show that the Australian skills system has strengths that the country can build on.

Many migrants are well educated and highly skilled

Australia has a large population of well-skilled and well-educated migrants, many of whom are young. These skilled migrants bring highly attractive and much-needed skills to the workforce. Migrants in Australia generally integrate successfully into the mainstream society, as measured by their labour market outcomes and the basic skills of their offspring.

Computer and ICT skills are strong

By international standards, adults in Australia, across all age groups, have strong skills in problem solving in technology-rich environments. This is important as adults who are not familiar with computers will be poorly equipped to respond to new work requirements spurred by new technology.

Workplaces contribute to stronger skills

In Australia, jobs provide more learning opportunities, including for those with low skills, than jobs in many other countries. The workplace is therefore an important and strong element of the skills system in Australia.

Policy recommendations

While this report discusses how to improve basic skills in adult population, it should be recognised that underperformance on basic skills can be traced back to earlier stages of education. For example, poor performance of the post-secondary vocational education and training (VET) system very likely reflects a selection effect whereby those with lower basic skills are more likely to enter VET pathways. Australia could achieve better economic and social outcomes by tackling the challenges of how to improve numeracy skills, how to ensure that post-secondary VET programmes lead to strong basic skills, and how to address the issue of young NEET adults, many of whom are low skilled. The policy recommendations listed below are designed to respond to these challenges.

Increase participation of women in STEM fields by breaking down gender stereotypes and encouraging women to enter these fields.

Young women often do not translate their good school performance into choosing a field of study that offers better employment prospects, such as studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. To increase participation of women in STEM fields Australia has recently introduced the National Innovation and Science Agenda (www.innovation.gov.au).

Strengthen the focus on mathematics throughout secondary education.

International comparison shows that while young adults in Australia have strong literacy skills, in numeracy they lag behind their peers with comparable qualifications. The Australian Government recently introduced several initiatives to tackle this issue.

Identify students in post-secondary VET who are at risk of low basic skills and provide targeted initiatives to support them.

Post-secondary VET students whose highest qualification is below upper-secondary or upper-secondary VET are much more likely to perform poorly in basic skills than their peers with higher levels of education. Women are also over-represented among students with low basic numeracy and literacy skills. These findings show that initiatives targeting specific categories of post-secondary VET students could be particularly effective.

Ensure that literacy and numeracy skills are part of the quality criteria in post-secondary VET.

Some institutions may accept students with poor basic skills with no intention or capacity to address this challenge. Basic numeracy and literacy should therefore underpin all postsecondary VET qualifications.

Encourage post-secondary VET providers to address weak literacy and numeracy skills.

Remediating poor literacy and numeracy skills is difficult, but not impossible. Providers of post-secondary VET qualifications should be encouraged to address underperformance in these basic skills more vigorously and effectively.

Reach out to disconnected youth and prevent dropout at earlier stages of education.

Typically, students who are at risk of dropping out early from school disengage gradually, and there are early signs that can be helpful in identifying these students.

Use pre-apprenticeships to help NEETs re-enter education and training, and to find employment.

Various initiatives that facilitate the transition from joblessness to training, or that provide a bridge between schools and apprenticeships, can be used to better prepare young people for their apprenticeship.

Improve access to childcare facilities for young mothers.

In order to help NEETs with children, particularly women, to enter the labour market or facilitate a return to education and training, childcare should be easily accessible and costs should be kept at an affordable level.