Fears raised over graduate ability
The vast majority of students are leaving higher education without the highest levels of literacy, an international study suggests.
While increasing numbers of people are going on to university, just one in four reaches the highest standards in the basics, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) annual education report.
Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's director for education and skills, said the findings indicate that while more people in the UK are getting qualifications, this is not matched by better skills in reading and writing. He suggested the picture was similar for numeracy.
The latest Education At A Glance study reveals that a student in the UK is now more likely to go to university than they are to finish their education when they leave school.
In 2012, just over two in five (41%) 25 to 64-year-olds held a degree or equivalent qualification, while 37% stopped studying after gaining their GCSEs or A-levels.
It also shows that in 2012 - the last year for which data is available, 48% of UK young people (25 to 34-year-olds) had been to university or college, compared to 33% of 55 to 64-year-olds.
But while more people are continuing their education, the report suggests that this is not reflected in better basic skills.
The data, which draws on international tests conducted by the OECD, shows that just 25% of graduates in England and Northern Ireland have the highest levels of ability in literacy.
In many high-performing countries, including Australia, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands and Sweden, more than a third of graduates are performing at this level.
"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," Mr Schleicher said.
" In the UK, it's at best a middle position," he suggested. " I think that's something, quality and degrees do not always align."
Mr Schleicher added: " There's also a big distribution in outcomes. What's interesting is when you look at people with tertiary qualifications, there's a lot of variability in the skills those people have attained.
"Not all further education qualifications really deserve that name because often those individuals are not actually better skilled than people who have just come out of school."
The figures cover not just university degrees, but any type of higher level, or "tertiary" qualification.
Mr Schleicher said that he would have expected the UK to perform better at the highest levels of literacy.
"UK universities have a very strong reputation - you would have expected this stronger prevalence among the most highly skilled people."
In general, literacy and numeracy skills can reflect what a student has learnt at school, before they go on to higher education, Mr Schleicher said - adding that universities may assume that students have these abilities when they could be better.
The latest report shows that around a third of 25 to 34-year-olds in England and Northern Ireland have achieved a higher level of education than their mothers and fathers, but adds that parents' level of education still has a strong influence on a child's educational achievement.
An individual in England and Northern Ireland whose parents hold a degree is more than six times more likely to go into higher education themselves as someone whose parents did not gain their GCSEs.
It adds that greater access to higher education doesn't necessarily lead to better social mobility - essentially more poorer students going on to study for a degree. Social background is still a key factor in going into higher education, it is suggested.
The OECD also found that the UK is one of very few countries that have worked out a sustainable approach to funding higher education, through fees and loans. This is based on the old system, before fees were tripled to a maximum of £9,000 per year.
A Business Department spokesman said: " This report reinforces the UK's reputation as a true world leader in higher education, and confirms that a university degree is an excellent return on investment for the individual and for the country's economic growth.
"However, we cannot be complacent in the face of growing international competition. That's why Government is leading reforms that are seeing universities grow and invest more in the quality of the student experience. We have a range of measures in place to identify and resolve quality issues identified in higher education institutions."