Undergraduates lack the numeracy skills required for their courses and work place, according to new exploratory study

Added 11th February 2019

An exploratory project by National Numeracy, commissioned by the Nuffield Foundation, has found that many undergraduate students do not have the numeracy skills required to fully understand their course.

Social science students from nine different UK universities assessed their skills using the National Numeracy Challenge, an online resource which any adult can use to assess and improve their everyday maths skills.

Key findings

    • Only 26% of those involved had the numeracy levels identified as generally necessary for daily life and work. Or in other words the equivalent of a ‘C’ or ‘4’ at GCSE.
    • 71% of students who used the available learning resources and then retook their assessment improved on their original score.

The participating degree subjects (all from institutions involved in Nuffield Foundation’s ‘Q-Step’ initiative) included Sociology, Geography and Criminology, areas highly dependent on quantitative data analysis.

The report concludes that for students embarking on a degree where data and numbers may be central to successful study, this lack of numeracy skills may compromise future employability, especially in relation to certain graduate careers.

The findings also suggest that universities can support students to develop their numeracy skills, but need help to identify were gaps in skills and knowledge lie first.

In an interview with The Times newspaper, Mike Ellicock, National Numeracy CEO said: “Most people think numeracy is a skills issue for people who aren’t employed; in reality anywhere we lift the stone we find remarkably similar stats — that three quarters of people are below the level expected of a 16-year-old. 

“Most of us wouldn’t have thought this would be a problem for undergraduates. The logical next step is that we should do something about it. We have lots of data showing people can improve.”

The project, set up as an exploratory exercise, sought to find practical approaches to engaging students with the National Numeracy Challenge tool and to better understand maths anxiety amongst Q-Step students. National Numeracy will now continue to work with the Nuffield Foundation to explore feasible models of embedding numeracy benchmarking and support into degree programmes.

What’s your numeracy level?

The National Numeracy Challenge is a free tool which you can use to check which numeracy level you are roughly working at, see strengths and weaknesses and get help to improve.