Skills and education: How well do educational qualifications measure skills?

Publication Details

This report, based on the Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) Survey 2006, examines the link between English literacy and numeracy skills and educational qualifications by looking at the characteristics of people who have high levels of qualifications but low levels of literacy or numeracy, and at those who have high levels of literacy or numeracy despite low levels of qualifications.

Author(s): Roger Smyth and Chris Lane, Tertiary Sector Performance Analysis and Reporting, Ministry of Education.

Date Published: September 2009

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Section 1: Key findings

This report finds that among those with degrees but low levels of English literacy, two thirds were people with English as an additional language, while among those with degrees but low levels of numeracy, half had English as an additional language.  Leaving out people for whom English is an additional language, the level of educational qualifications is a good indicator of literacy and numeracy skill levels.


Highly skilled people with low levels of qualifications were more likely to have completed year 12 or 13 at school than to have left school at year 11 or earlier, were more likely to have been born in New Zealand than overseas, and were almost all native speakers of English.  We would have expected that there would be a large number of people in older age groups with low levels of qualifications but high levels of skills – people with high ability who left school and went into work in the days before access to tertiary education was widespread. That turns out not to be the case.

This study uses data from the Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) Survey, conducted in New Zealand in 2006, to explore the relationship between people's skills and the educational qualifications they hold.

The key findings are:
  • Overall, the level of qualifications a person holds is a reasonable indicator of the level of the person's skills, especially among those New Zealanders for whom English is a first language. But there are significant numbers for whom the relationship does not hold.
  • It is estimated that between 76,000 and 106,000 New Zealanders aged 16 to 65 who have a degree or higher qualification have low English literacy and numeracy. Conversely, between 83,000 and 119,000 New Zealanders aged 16 to 65 (excluding current students) with no qualifications beyond the level of senior secondary school have relatively high literacy and numeracy.
  • While between 18 and 24 percent of degree-holders have low literacy and 22 to 27 percent have low numeracy, two-thirds of the low literacy group and half of the low numeracy group do not have English as a first language. This is largely because skills – numeracy as well as literacy – are tested in the English language. In a society such as New Zealand and in New Zealand's labour market, English-based skills are better recognised and rewarded.
  • The finding that a high proportion of those not born in New Zealand – especially immigrants from non-English speaking countries – are degree-qualified but have low English literacy and/or numeracy helps explain why many well-qualified migrants end up working in jobs unsuitable for their level of education, especially in their early years in New Zealand.
  • Virtually all (97 to 99 percent) of non-students with no qualifications or school qualifications only but high literacy or numeracy had English as a first language, and 87 to 88 percent were born in New Zealand.
  • Comparison of the age distributions of the low qualifications but high skills groups in the 1996 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) and the 2006 ALL survey suggests that participation and achievement in tertiary education is an important factor in developing skills. It also reflects the increasing expectation that people stay longer in education.