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Study: University graduates with lower levels of literacy and numeracy skills, 2012

Released: 2014-11-04

In 2012, more than a quarter of university graduates in Canada aged 25 to 65 had a literacy score at the second level or below (out of five levels) in a survey on adult competencies led by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The survey, which was part of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), assessed people's level of proficiency in skills related to literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments.

In the PIAAC, lower levels of literacy indicate that individuals may be less likely to be able to integrate information across multiple sources, and may be only able to undertake tasks of limited complexity.

Lower numeracy levels indicate that individuals may be less likely to perform complex mathematical information, may be less likely to use problem solving strategies, and may be more likely to be able to only perform simple tasks.

Among all Canadians aged 25 to 65 in 2012, almost half (49%) fell in the lower range for literacy proficiency, and about 55% were in the lower range for numeracy proficiency (level 2 or below).

Less-educated individuals were more likely to have lower levels of literacy and numeracy. For instance, 88% of individuals aged 25 to 65 who did not have a high school degree had literacy in the lower range.

Yet, some university graduates were in the lower range of literacy and numeracy (level 2 or below). Specifically, 27% of university graduates were in the lower range for literacy in 2012 and 32% were in the lower range for numeracy.

Foreign-born university graduates are more likely to have lower levels of literacy and numeracy

Foreign-born university graduates were more likely to have lower levels of literacy and numeracy (level 2 or below), especially those whose degree was obtained outside of Canada.

It is important to note that tests were administered only in English or in French to all survey respondents, meaning that the results obtained by foreign-born university graduates could be influenced by their proficiency in the test language.

In 2012, 45% of foreign-born university graduates were in the lower range for literacy and 46% were in the lower range for numeracy. Among those whose degree was from outside Canada, that percentage was 54% for both literacy and numeracy.

By comparison, 16% of Canadian-born university graduates were in the lower range for literacy and 23% were in the lower range for numeracy.

Chart 1  Chart 1: Proportion of Canadians aged 25 to 65 with a university degree at level 2 or below in skill proficiency levels, 2012 - Description and data table
Proportion of Canadians aged 25 to 65 with a university degree at level 2 or below in skill proficiency levels, 2012

Chart 1: Proportion of Canadians aged 25 to 65 with a university degree at level 2 or below in skill proficiency levels, 2012 - Description and data table

Number of books in the respondent's home during high school years linked to literacy and numeracy skills in adult years

Within the population of Canadian-born university graduates, there were other factors associated with lower levels of numeracy and literacy.

For example, in this group, 27% of women were in the lower range for numeracy in 2012 compared with 17% of men.

Rates also varied by age. Individuals aged 35 to 39 had the lowest proportions of individuals in the lower range for literacy (9%) and numeracy (17%). Older age groups (aged 55 to 65), in turn, had the highest proportions of individuals in the lower range for literacy (24%) and numeracy (29%).

Another important variable was the number of books in the respondent's home when they were in high school. This measure can be used as a proxy for access to cultural capital.

For example, among Canadian-born university graduates who reported having less than 10 books at home, 31% were in the lower range for literacy. This compares with 9% among those who reported having more than 200 books at home. A similar effect was noted with lower levels of numeracy.

Literacy and numeracy also varied by field of study. Specifically, those who studied in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science were less likely than those who studied in other fields to be in the low range for literacy and numeracy.

It is important to note that the literacy and numeracy skills of adults may not be just the result of school or training experience, but also of experience acquired and maintained on the labour market.

Labour market participation

Canadian-born university graduates who were in the lower range of skills (level 2 and below) were just as likely to be employed as those who were in the top levels of skills (level 3 and above).

Those who had a level 2 or below in numeracy skills, however, were less likely than others to work in managerial or professional occupations.

For example, among Canadian-born university graduates who had a job in 2012, the probability of working in professional or managerial occupations among those in the top three levels of numeracy skills was 94% (holding other factors constant).

In contrast, those who were in the lowest levels for numeracy skills had an 86% chance of working in professional or managerial occupations. That difference held true even when all other differences related to age, gender, province of residence, language, parental education, cultural capital and field of study were taken into account.

  Note to readers

In this study, data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) are used to examine the characteristics of individuals with lower levels of literacy, numeracy, or both. In this study of university graduates, individuals in the lower range for literacy and numeracy are defined as those who scored at level 2 or below (out of 5 levels) in tests administered to survey respondents. PIAAC provides internationally comparable measures of skills that are essential to processing information, including literacy and numeracy skills.

The article "University graduates with lower levels of literacy and numeracy skills" is now available in Insights on Canadian Society (Catalogue number75-006-X) from the Browse by key resource module of our website under Publications.

Contact information

For more information, contact us (toll-free 1-800-263-1136; 514-283-8300; infostats@statcan.gc.ca).

To enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact Darcy Hango (613-513-8848; darcy.hango@statcan.gc.ca), Labour Statistics Division.

For more information on Insights on Canadian Society, contact Sébastien LaRochelle-Côté (613-951-0803; sebastien.larochelle-cote@statcan.gc.ca), Labour Statistics Division.

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