Education institutions are accountable for student literacy and numeracy skills

Post-secondary students simply aren't measuring up to the necessary numeracy and literacy skills needed not only to be employable but function well in life. Photo credit: Jackie Graves

Post-secondary students in Ontario aren’t up to par when it comes to numeracy and literacy skills – which is a big problem, and you can count on that.

Two studies conducted by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) surveyed over 7,500 students across 20 Ontario post-secondary institutions, and what they found is both sad and highly concerning.

The studies showed a large number of students scored below what is “adequate” in order to succeed in the current job market. Those who scored at a “superior” level only made up a third of the students surveyed.

How is this possible when one of the primary reasons students pursue higher education is to get a job?

The president and chief executive of HEQCO, Harvey Weingarten, says while universities and colleges insist they prepare students for the workplace, employers are “frustrated” as students lack critical-thinking, problem-solving, and communication-based skills.

It’s important to note this study was measuring whether or not students can process written and numerical information to solve problems — it wasn’t testing if they could read or perform arithmetic.

This speaks volumes as to how the education system is handling their students’ education. Students aren’t learning the necessary skills they need to be employable and it’s time to hold institutions accountable. Plain and simple.

However, it’s fair to say students have to ensure they make the most of their education. All college programs in Ontario have employability outcomes in their courses.

These Essential Employability Skills (EES) are critical for student success in the workplace regardless of their program. These skills focus on three fundamental assumptions.

They are important for every adult to function successfully in society; colleges are well equipped to prepare graduates with these skills; and these skills are equally valuable for all graduates regardless of their level of credentials or their choice in a career path or further education.

Yet, it isn’t just students in college and university who are struggling, it’s a large number of Ontarians.

According to the Community Literacy of Ontario, a provincial literacy network,15 per cent of people in Ontario, ages 16 to 65, scored at and below level 1 of literacy. People at this level will struggle seriously with reading even the most basic texts.

It doesn’t stop there, however.

The Community Literacy of Ontario also reports 32 per cent of Ontarians scored at a literacy level 2. This means they can read with difficulty and likely will have issues navigating basic forms and directions encountered in daily life, such as rental agreements and even medical instructions.

On the numeracy side of things, the outcomes are even grimmer; 22 per cent of people scored at or below numeracy level 1, meaning they have very limited math skills. Thirty-one per cent scored at a numeracy level 2, which means they’ll struggle with completing common and necessary numeracy-related tasks.

This means more than half of the people in Ontario have less than a numeracy level 3. According to the Employment and Social Development Canada and the Conference Board of Canada, you need to at least score this level to function well in modern Canadian society.

Clearly, this is not an isolated issue, and arguably the current education system is at the heart.

Institutions have teaching outcomes in place to ensure their pupils are employable. Under no circumstance should an educated person struggle with everyday challenges.

So, either someone isn’t doing their job, or it’s time to reform the current system to make post-secondary students employable.

Critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills need to be taught and reinforced before students begin post-secondary.

High-school students need up-to-date, practical literacy and numeracy curriculum to make sure they’re prepared for not only for future education but for life.

Post-secondary institutions need to ensure students are meeting the employability outcomes for all programs by injecting these in the curriculum.

Whether it’s through problem-solving activities, group work, critical thinking through real-world situations, or replacing algebra with “what a mortgage is and what taxes mean” course, something needs to change.

The job market is forever adapting and students are expected to as well.

It’s time that educational institutions did the same. Student employability is counting on it.