Assessment and recommendations

Key findings

Australia’s overall performance in the PIAAC Survey of Adult Skills 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.

Numeracy represents a particular challenge in Australia. Around 93% of Australian adults with low literacy and/or numeracy skills perform poorly in numeracy. However, around 42% of adults with low skills can reach at least Level 2 in literacy. In contrast, only 7% of adults have low literacy skills but reach at least Level 2 in numeracy.

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:

  • 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. Around 30% of low skilled adults have completed education at upper secondary level and around 20% beyond upper-secondary level.

  • Signs of poor numeracy performance can be traced back to initial schooling. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) a triennial evaluation that tests the basic skills of 15-year-olds, shows the numeracy skills of young people in Australia continuously decreased between 2003 and 2012. The PISA study also shows that Australia has a larger skills gap among 15-year-olds (as measured by the difference between the 5th and 95th percentiles) than many other OECD countries.

  • Women have weaker numeracy skills than men. Women are also less likely to study in the fields of study that require strong mathematical skills, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

  • Young women in Australia are much more likely to be not in employment, education or training (NEET) than young men. Gender is more strongly associated with NEET status in Australia than in all other countries, except Turkey. Speaking a language other than English and leaving education and training early are also risk factors of being a NEET in Australia.

Strengths of the Australian system

While the PIAAC Survey of Adult Skills 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. Migrants in Australia are also more likely to work in skilled and well-paid jobs compared to migrants in other countries. And in contrast to many other countries, second-generation migrants have literacy and numeracy skills comparable to those of natives.

These positive outcomes can be explained by migration policy in Australia, which gives priority to skilled migrants and successfully supports integration of newcomers into mainstream society.

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 ICT technologies and the use of computers have changed working methods and work organisation. Employment in jobs subject to automation has been shrinking, along with the demand for the skills necessary to perform these jobs. These trends could accelerate in the future as technology is increasingly applied in workplaces, and computers are able to perform more and more complex tasks. Adults who are not familiar with computers will therefore be poorly equipped to respond to new work requirements spurred by new technology.

Workplaces contribute to stronger skills

People develop their skills in the workplace, through formalised training, daily interactions with colleagues and supervisors and simply by doing their work. 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. Drawing on this positive experience, Australia could promote and scale up work arrangements and management practices that lead to the best outcomes in terms of skills improvement.

Policy recommendations

Australia could achieve better economic and social outcomes by tackling the challenges of how to improve numeracy skills, how to ensure that post-secondary vocational education and training (VET) leads 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. 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 VET system very likely reflects a selection effect whereby those with lower basic skills are more likely to enter VET pathways. It means the observed skills gap among adults should not be squarely attributed to poor performance of the VET system. That does not diminish the importance of addressing poor skills through the VET system, if that is where the problem is concentrated.

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

    Gender differences in educational choices are often related to student attitudes (motivation, interest) in studying a particular subject, rather than their ability and school performance. 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 STEM fields. As well as the social and economic benefits, policies to attract and retain more women in the STEM workforce would help reduce occupational segmentation in the labour force and improve gender equity in labour market outcomes. To increase participation of women in STEM fields Australia has recently introduced the National Innovation and Science Agenda (

  2. 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. While this finding cannot be directly connected to the design of the school system in Australia, it raises questions regarding the effectiveness of the school system in developing strong numeracy skills in young people. The Australian Government recently introduced several initiatives to tackle this issue.

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

    Australian post-secondary VET is inclusive and caters to a very diverse population. While this is a strength, it can be challenging to address the needs of a very diverse population. 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, such as those with low VET qualifications and students in specific fields of study, could be particularly effective.

  4. Ensure that literacy and numeracy skills are part of the quality criteria in postsecondary VET.

    Recent reforms established a market in the provision of post-secondary VET, with public and private providers competing for public money. These reforms aimed to increase the number of VET participants, improve access to post-secondary education, and boost student choice. However, the reforms also created a system that is complex and difficult to understand for students, and where quality varies largely across providers. 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 post-secondary VET qualifications.

  5. 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.

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

    Reaching out to young people at risk who are still in school is easier than targeting those who have already left and are loosely connected to the labour market. Young people who leave education and training early are more likely to become NEET. 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.

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

    Apprenticeships, or traineeships, can be a powerful tool to engage disconnected youth as they offer an opportunity to learn and connect to the world of work. However, finding and successfully completing an apprenticeship may be particularly difficult for those most in need. 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.

  8. Improve access to childcare facilities for young mothers.

    Young women in Australia are much more likely to become NEET than young men. In Australia, this association is one of the highest among countries participating in the Survey of Adult Skills, which signals the level of importance of the problem. 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.