Degrees of competency
The relationship between educational qualifications and adult skills across countries
Educational qualifications and literacy skills are highly related. This is not surprising as it is one aim of educational systems to equip individuals with competencies necessary to take part in society. Because of this relationship educational qualifications are often used as a proxy for “human capital”. However, from a theoretical perspective, there are many reasons why this relationship is not perfect, and to some degree this is due to third variables. Thus, we want to explore the net relationship between educational attainment (harmonized according to the International Standard Classification of Education, ISCED) and literacy skills, and how much skills vary within education levels across countries. We use data from 21 countries from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies 2012. This paper compares the literacy skills of adults who achieved different levels of educational attainment across countries. Given the high degree of educational differentiation in most countries, we do this using a more differentiated educational attainment variable than what is commonly used. In our analyses we firstly adjust for factors that are likely to affect access to education and the acquisition of educational qualifications and literacy skills, such as parental education and language and migration background. In a second step, we also take into account factors affecting skill development after initial formal education, such as occupation and skill use at home. We firstly find a high degree of heterogeneity of skills across countries for equivalent education categories. Secondly, we find skill similarities for equivalent education categories classified at different broad education levels, sometimes even breaking the hierarchical order of ‘higher education entails higher competencies’. We conclude that ISCED levels cannot be taken as a cross-nationally comparable proxy for human capital in terms of literacy skills, and that education has to be harmonized in a substantively more meaningful way in future adult literacy surveys.