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Margin Notes

A second look at Canada’s adult literacy and numeracy skills

Looking specifically at graduates of Canadian universities, we’re not doing that badly.


There were concerns in the media last October about Canada’s literacy and numeracy results in the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC. An OECD initiative, PIAAC was created to assess adult skills and competencies in three main areas: literacy, numeracy and what the OECD terms “problem solving in a rich technology environment” or what we might call digital skills. The October 2013 Survey of Adult Skills, from 24 participating countries and sub-national regions, was the first release of PIAAC data.

Media reports noted that Canada did well in the problem-solving category, but lagged in literacy and numeracy. In literacy, Canada scored at about the OECD average, roughly on par with the U.K. (England and Northern Ireland) and Germany. In numeracy, we scored slightly below the OECD average, roughly on par with the U.K and the U.S.

Concerns in Canada were further heightened when the latest release of data from the Programme for International Student Assessment in December showed that the performance of Canadian 15-year-olds in math was dropping.

The PISA results are more an issue for the K-12 education sector, so I’ll leave them aside for now. The PIAAC results, on the other hand, are relevant from a higher education perspective and reveal some interesting results when examined a bit more closely.

According to an analysis by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and the Council of Ministers of Education Canada, when you look specifically at bachelor’s graduates from Canadian universities, you’ll find that Canada in fact significantly outperforms the OECD average in literacy – moving from 14th to fourth place – and jumps above the OECD average on numeracy skills (see chart, story continues below).


Why is this? The reason lies with the higher proportion of foreign-trained graduates in Canada compared to other OECD countries, reflecting the higher percentage of immigrants in this country. Thirty-nine percent of graduates in Canada who responded to the survey were immigrants, compared to just 14 percent in other OECD countries – and of the 39 percent, more than half were educated abroad. The lower scores of immigrants, especially those educated abroad, affected the Canada-wide averages.

Of the 24 participating countries, the CMEC noted, “Canada has the second-largest proportion of immigrants, and the largest percentage of population whose mother tongue is different from the official languages of the assessment.”

Fine, but this doesn’t materially change the result or the make-up of Canada’s adult workforce, some may argue. That’s true, but it might change the solution to Canada’s lagging scores. The AUCC wants to ensure that the media are not sending misleading signals to students and employers about the quality of education in Canada’s universities. What the result does suggest is that Canada perhaps needs to invest more in adult literacy and numeracy education for immigrants.

This is already happening to some degree. Looking at the PIAAC data, Canada has been more successful than most countries in minimizing the skills gaps relating to country of origin or language. AUCC credits the numerous programs that universities across Canada have in place to assist recent immigrants adjust to the social, cultural and linguistic challenges they confront as they adapt to life in Canada. But more, of course, could be done to help immigrants educated abroad raise their skills.

Update: I see the Conference Board of Canada has a similar analysis, posted on Feb. 24.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Ross Paul / February 26, 2014 at 18:09

    We will know that we are performing more effectively when the lead-in to such an article as this says “we’re not doing that badly” as opposed to “we’re not doing that bad”.

    • Peggy Berkowitz, Editor / February 27, 2014 at 10:38

      We sheepishly thank you for your comment. Another former university president, Lorna Marsden, also pointed this out, suggesting that a story on grammar might be timely for University Affairs. We’ve fixed the tagline on our homepage.

  2. Ridha B / February 27, 2014 at 07:55

    The results are not worrying and require further investigation. Those immigrants may have achieved better scores if they were tested in their own native language. My guesstimate that language competency plays a crucial factor in their lower scores. I must admit that some serious reflection and action on the gap between education and skills are required. However, reflecting on my own experience , higher education provided me merely with fundamental yet not comprehensive skills to achieve the economic and social benefits. That being said upon my graduation, I gained further in-depth expertise and knowledge from my work and continuing professional development. I do not expect higher education to cater for all skills and knowledge in a dynamic and rapidly changing world. The key to success can be attained with further learning in educational/training programs that stem from proper needs analysis in other words during post-graduation career.

  3. Chris / February 27, 2014 at 13:43

    “The AUCC wants to ensure that the media are not sending misleading signals to students and employers about the quality of education in Canada’s universities.”

    I teach enough postsecondary courses, and review enough poorly written cover letters and c.v.’s from individuals with one two or more university credentials, to believe without any hesitation or doubt that there actually IS a quality issue within our universities as well. The literacy and numeracy shortfall is not primarily a concern facing recent immigrants; it is a growing issue within our entire postsecondary system. It is time to stop burying our collective heads in the sand.

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