The OECD has published its annual ‘Society at a Glance’ report. In it they report that the UK has now become a graduate economy. That is, people of working age in the UK are now more likely to have a degree than to have just left school with lower-level qualifications such as A-levels.

The actual numbers are:

People with degrees – 41%
People with GCSEs or A-levels – 37%
People with no qualifications – 22%

Strictly speaking, there’s still a greater proportion of people without degrees than those with, so its not clear to us that this is suddenly a ‘graduate economy’. Nevertheless, it does mean the UK has the highest proportion of adults with graduate-level qualifications in the European Union. Indeed, there are only a handful of countries with a higher proportion of graduates in the workforce and is only surpassed by a handful of countries including South Korea and Japan.

Politicians love statistics like these that make good headlines and seemingly validate their education policies. But dig deeper and the picture isn’t quite so rosy. The ‘Society at a Glance’ report also highlights a disparity between the rising graduate numbers and weaknesses in basic skills such as reading and writing.

“On the one hand in the UK you can say qualification levels have risen enormously, lots more people are getting tertiary qualifications, university degrees, but actually not all of that is visible in better skills,” said the OECD’s director of education, Andreas Schleicher. “Quality and degrees do not always align.”

Only a quarter of UK graduates achieved the top level of literacy in tests, compared with over a third in Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan and Finland. Mr Schleicher said there was “a lot of variability in the skills” of these UK graduates, with some not significantly better than school leavers.

Finally, while a graduate economy might seem to be an incontrovertibly good thing, it can seriously unbalance the employment market. South Korea, where around 80% of school leavers go to University, perhaps not surprisingly, also has the world’s highest levels of graduate unemployment.