The OECD conducts a survey of Adult Skills focused on literacy, numeracy and problem solving. The report, Building Skills for All in Australia: Policy Insights from the Survey of Adult Skills explores the main strengths of the Australian skills system and areas where its performance could be improved.

Published in 2017, the report proposes strengthening the focus on basic skills throughout schooling and in post-secondary programs. It also suggests reaching out to disconnected youth. There are a number of recommendations for action relevant to VET.

Australia’s performance

While Australia’s performance is rated from very good to average in this survey, one in five adult Australians have low literacy or numeracy skills. Numeracy represents a particular challenge and these problems can be traced back to initial and upper-secondary schooling. While we are better than many in achievement terms, we are below those of many nordic countries, Korea and Japan. In truth, we are running about the middle of the pack.

On the up side, workplaces make an important contribution to basic skills development. Computer and ICT skills are also strong, but those without these skills risk being left behind. The report suggests that Australia’s migrants tend to be well skilled and educated, integrate well and the next generation are well set up in terms of the levels of their literacy and numeracy skills. Thus, our migration policy seen as successful relative to other countries.

VET’s part in all this

VET has an important role to play because those with lower basic skills are more likely to enter VET pathways. The sector also caters to a very diverse client group.

The report notes that:

“Improvement in basic skills among current students may therefore increase returns [from] VET qualifications.”


“VET graduates with low skills could … be more vulnerable than their better skilled peers when economic and employment prospects worsen.”

Thus, a focus on foundation skills is warranted, with the Foundation Skills Assessment Tool (FSAT), built around the Core Skills for Work Developmental Framework cited as valuable tool to help support basic skills delivery. This attention, they believe, may also help reduce dropout from programs and increase the capacity of VET graduates to enter more highly skilled jobs as well as pursue further training and career development.

The recommendations: What changes are needed?

They make eight recommendations, but the focus here is on those most relevant to VET.

First, the variation in the quality of providers is an issue with the move to marketisation. Some providers in the marketplace are not able to address the basic skill needs of their student cohorts adequately even although they really need the support.

Second, this means that better processes are needed to identify those who lack basic skills and then provide well-targeted initiatives to support them. Remediating a lack of basic skills can be difficult but is not impossible with the right programs, processes and people in place.

Third, pre-apprenticeships can be used to help those who are not in employment, education or training (the ‘NEETs’) to engage, to build the ‘bridges’ to help them learn and “connect with the world of work”.

Finally, and given that they report that women appeared to have weaker numeracy skills than men, gender barriers need to be broken down to increase female participation, especially in STEM-based occupations.