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Survey of adult skills

09 October 2013
by eub2 -- last modified 09 October 2013

One in five adults in Europe have low literacy and numeracy skills, and even a university degree in the same subject is no guarantee of the same level of skills in different countries, according to the first comprehensive international Survey of Adult Skills published today by the OECD and European Commission. The survey assesses the literacy, numeracy and problem-solving ICT skills of adults aged 16-65 in 17 EU Member States - Belgium (Flanders), Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Cyprus, The Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden and the UK (England/Northern Ireland), as well as in Australia, Canada, Japan, Republic of Korea, Norway and the United States. The findings underline the need to target investment at improving education and training to increase skills and employability in European countries.


Survey key findings:

  • 20% of the EU working age population has low literacy and numeracy skills: the figure is higher among the unemployed who are likely to be caught in a 'low-skills trap' because they do little or no adult learning;
  • 25% of adults lack the digital skills needed to effectively use ICT (addressing this is one of the objectives of the Commission's new Opening up Education initiative);
  • There are striking differences between countries in skills provided through formal education: recent school leavers with an upper secondary qualification in some Member States have similar or better skills than higher education graduates in others;
  • Lifelong learning policies must aim at sustaining skills over time given the gaps between generations revealed by the survey and the significant economic and social benefits of higher skills.

Differences between Member States

The evidence from the data collected by the OECD shows significant differences between Member States. Examples are given below:

One adult in five has low literacy or numeracy skills in Ireland, France, Poland and the UK. This rises to almost one adult in three in Spain and Italy.

More than 40% of the adult population in the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden have high problem solving skills in ICT environments, while almost one in five adults have no computer experience in Spain, Italy, Cyprus, Poland and Slovakia.

Literacy scores from recent upper secondary school graduates in the Netherlands and Finland are close to or better than those of higher education graduates in Ireland, Spain, Italy, Cyprus and the UK (England/Northern Ireland).

In Belgium (Flanders), Spain, France and Finland, the level of proficiency in literacy and numeracy among 25-34 year olds is significantly better than the generation aged 55-65.

Next steps

The survey findings and their implications for education and training will be discussed with Member States to help identify actions to remedy weaknesses. The new Erasmus+ programme for education, training and youth will support projects aimed at developing and upgrading adult skills. The survey can also help Member States define priorities to finance from the 2014-2020 European Social Fund, which is a key source of investment in skills and training and can also improve access to training for vulnerable groups.


The Survey of Adult Skills directly assesses the skills of about 5 000 adults aged 16-65 in each participating country, representing the working age population. The skills tested are literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments. The survey also asks about the use of ICT at work and in everyday life, generic skills required at work, whether the skills and qualification match work requirements and questions about education, work and socio-economic background.

The survey was conducted in 2011/2012 in 23 countries, among them 17 EU Member States, representing more than 80% of the EU28 population.

The European Commission and the OECD have recently signed a new cooperation agreement to work closer together in three areas: skills strategies, country analyses and international surveys.

The Commission and the OECD will launch a new Education and Skills Online Assessment tool later this autumn. This will allow people to test their skills and benchmark their own abilities in an international context.

This afternoon, Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director of the OECD's Education and Skills Directorate, and Xavier Prats Monné, Deputy Director-General for Education and Culture in the European Commission, will host a briefing for education and training stakeholders on the implications of the survey for European policy-making. The briefing will take place from 14:30-16:00 in the auditorium of the Commission's Madou building, Place Madou 1, 1210 Saint-Josse-Ten-Noode. Accredited media are welcome.

Survey of Adult Skills on the OECD website

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