What can the Survey of Adult Skills tell us about how skills and education relate to social well-being?

Publication Details

This paper presents some key results on how skills relate to health, social participation and social trust. People with higher skills and higher education have higher levels of self-reported health, volunteer more often, trust others more, and feel they have more political voice. This relationship holds almost without exception across education and literacy levels. It is stronger for health and say in government and less strong for trust and volunteering. Across the OECD, New Zealand has high levels of self-reported health, volunteering, interpersonal trust, and say in government.

Author(s): David Scott, Tertiary, Ministry of Education.

Date Published: December 2018

Key messages

The Survey of Adult Skills shows that people with higher skills and higher education have higher levels of self-reported health, volunteer more often, trust others more, and feel they have more political voice.

This association holds almost without exception across education and literacy levels, and is stronger for health and voice in government, but less strong for trust and volunteering.

New Zealand has high levels of self-reported health, volunteering, interpersonal trust, and voice in government. These are above the OECD average at each level of education and literacy. The gaps in these measures between the least skilled and educated, and the most skilled and educated are also comparatively smaller in the areas of health and interpersonal trust. But they are larger than in many other OECD countries in the areas of volunteering and having a say in what the government does.

Introduction

The OECD’s annual report Education at a Glance (EAG) used data from the Survey of Adult Skills to explore the social impact of education. This builds on a growing body of research that shows a positive association between higher levels of education and skills, and a range of social benefits. This short paper summarises indicators from the 2016 report and shows where New Zealand sits compared with other OECD countries.

In EAG 2016 four questions from the Survey of Adult Skills were mapped to an OECD well-being framework as shown below.

How the Survey of Adult Skills questions have been analysed under the OECD well-being framework

How the Survey of Adult Skills questions have been analysed under the OECD well-being framework
DomainTopicIndicator
Health Self-reported overall health status Percentage of adults reporting that they are in good health, by educational attainment, gender and literacy and numeracy proficiency levels
Social connections Volunteering Percentage of adults reporting that they volunteer at least once a month, by educational attainment, gender, literacy and numeracy proficiency levels
Social connections Inter-personal trust Percentage of adults reporting that they trust others, by educational attainment, gender, literacy and numeracy proficiency levels
Civic engagement and governance Believe you have a say in what the government does Percentage of adults reporting that they believe they have a say in what the government does, by educational attainment, gender and literacy and numeracy proficiency levels


It is important to note that these indicators only show associations or correlations. They do not show causality or the extent to which an outcome can be attributed to education or skill level. As a Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) Round 2 country, the first results for New Zealand were available from 2016. Earlier editions of EAG (2014 and 2015), covering Round 1 countries, included additional analysis exploring what educational impacts might be after adjusting for country differences in household income, age and gender. These showed that education still had a positive effect on the outcomes, after adjusting for these variables.

Education and health

The research on the links between education and health are perhaps the most developed of the research on the social outcomes of education. On average, people with more education live longer and have healthier lives than those with less education. But the links are complex – and are tied closely to factors such as income, demographics, and the social and economic opportunities that people have for leading healthy lives in their communities. Given the significant and growing resources spent on healthcare, the extent to which education contributes directly to better health outcomes may suggest significant economic benefits as well.

Figure 1 shows the association between health and education and skills (in this case literacy). Across participating countries, the proportion of adults aged 25 to 64 years reporting they were in good health correlates well with educational attainment level and with level of literacy proficiency. In New Zealand, the difference in self-reported health between those with the highest levels of education and literacy levels and those with the lowest level of education and literacy skill was small at 22 percentage points. The average difference across the OECD was 33 percentage points.

Figure 1: Percentage of 25-64 year-old adults reporting they are in good health, by education and level of literacy

Figure 1: Percentage of 25-64 year-old adults reporting they are in good health, by education and level of literacy

Notes: See the technical note at the end of this report for source reference and definitions.

New Zealanders with low education and skills had relatively good health compared with similarly educated and skilled people in other countries. Of this group, 73% reported that they were in good health, the third highest in the OECD and higher than the 59% OECD average.

Education and volunteering

A society with high levels of social cohesion is recognised as being well-functioning: “Low levels of civic and community participation and trust can pose a challenge for the maintenance of well-functioning democratic institutions and political processes. Education may play an important role in ensuring social cohesion by fostering the cognitive skills, self-efficacy and resilience that underlie social and political interaction.” Volunteering is considered a strong marker of social cohesion, given it is typically an altruistic service benefiting others for no financial gain. The economic value to societies of volunteering has been shown to be very significant.

Figure 2 shows the relationship between literacy and education and volunteering. While the relationship is not as strong as it is with health, a clear association remains between higher education and skills, and higher levels of volunteering. Adults with a tertiary qualification and strong literacy reported higher levels of volunteering compared with adults with lower qualifications and literacy.

New Zealand has some of the highest levels of volunteering across all levels of education. However, the difference in volunteering levels between the least skilled and educated and the most skilled and educated was larger than many (two-thirds of) other OECD countries.

New Zealanders with low education and low skills had the highest rate of volunteering compared to people with similar education and skills in other countries. New Zealanders with degrees and high skills had the second highest rate of volunteering.

Figure 2: Percentage of 25-64 year-old adults reporting they volunteer at least once per month, by education and level of literacy

Figure 2: Percentage of 25-64 year-old adults reporting they volunteer at least once per month, by education and level of literacy

Notes: See the technical note at the end of this report for source reference and definitions.

Education and interpersonal trust

Numerous studies have identified trust – both trust in institutions and trust in other people – as a key ingredient of social and economic progress. It has been linked to income per capita and economic growth, health status and health-related behaviour, crime rates and subjective well-being. It is a key component of social capital and cohesion.

Figure 3: Percentage of 25-64 year old adults reporting that they trust others, by education and level of literacy

Figure 3: Percentage of 25-64 year old adults reporting that they trust others, by education and level of literacy

Notes: See technical note at end of report for source reference and definitions.

Figure 3 also shows a strong association between trust and education and skills. Across all countries, adults with higher qualifications and literacy also had higher levels of interpersonal trust. In New Zealand, the proportions of adults reporting that they trust others were above average (in the top third of countries). However, unlike health, or say in  what the government does, the gap between the least skilled, least educated and most skilled, most educated was larger than it was for many other OECD countries (in the bottom third). Part of this is likely due to cultural rather than educational reasons, especially in countries with low overall levels of trust.

Education and believing you have a voice in government

Democratic societies are founded on the principle that government reflects the will of the people, where everyone has an equal right of say. The extent to which some groups feel marginalised or disenfranchised in this respect can mean that government is no longer fulfilling this principle.

The Survey of Adult Skills shows a strong relationship between education and skills and whether you believed you had a say in what the government does. Adults with higher levels of literacy and qualifications reported higher levels of belief that they had a say in what the government does compared with adults with lower skills and qualifications.

In New Zealand, the gap in belief between least educated and most educated was larger than it was for interpersonal trust and volunteering, and about the same as between education and health.

Figure 4: Percentage of 25-64 year old adults reporting that they believe they have a say in what government does, by education and level of literacy

Figure 4: Percentage of 25-64 year old adults reporting that they believe they have a say in what government does, by education and level of literacy

Notes: See technical note at end of report for source reference and definitions.

Technical Note:

The material in this report comes from the Survey of Adult Skills data, as analysed and reported in OECD’s Education at a Glance 2016. Specifically, online tables for indicator A8. The reference year is 2012 for all countries, except for seven countries (New Zealand, and also Chile, Greece, Israel, Lithuania, Singapore and Slovenia), for which the reference year is 2015.

“Low literacy” as used in this report relates to level 1 and below on the PIAAC literacy proficiency scale. “Medium” literacy relates to level 3 on the PIAAC literacy proficiency scale. “High” literacy relates to levels 4 and 5 on the PIAAC literacy proficiency scale. Data on numeracy is also available on the OECD website but has not been analysed here.

For information on the Survey of Adult Skills see the OECD’s website. This also includes a full technical report, including country-specific technical information that may affect the country comparisons shown in this report.

Footnotes

  1. For more information, see as an example: OECD’s well-being framework.
  2. For example, Feinstein et al, What are the effects of education on health? In the 2006 OECD report: Measuring the Effects of Education on Health and Civic Engagement.
  3. (OECD, 2014) Education at a Glance 2014.
  4. OECD (2018) Trust and its determinants.

Contact Us

For more information about the content on this webpage, please email the:  Tertiary Mailbox