Contextual explanations for numeracy and literacy skill disparities between native and foreign-born adults in western countries

First-generation migrants and native-born adults show gap in numeracy and literacy skills

In many Western countries there is a gap between first generation migrants and native born adults with regard to numeracy and literacy skills. In a study that was published yesterday in the leading journal PLOS ONE, Dr Mark Levels of the Maastricht University Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA), Professor Christopher Jencks of Harvard University and the late professor Dr Jaap Dronkers of Maastricht University analysed the results of numeracy and literacy skills tests of almost 86,000 adults in seventeen Western countries. The study shows that people without a migration background generally performed slightly better than first generation migrants. The size of the gap varies between countries. An important part of the gap can be explained by differences in average education level, age, and sociodemographic factors between migrant and non-migrant populations. However, the research also showed that three characteristics of destination countries contribute to an explanation of the size of the gap: the extent of flexibility of the labour market, the extent to which the education system is equipped to deal with the specific challenges that migrant children present, and the ethnic diversity of a society.

The research seems to present an obvious result, but that is not the case, says Mark Levels: “There has never been thorough research to establish if there really is a gap, how big that gap is, how it varies between countries, and how that variation can be explained. Of course, there is a difference between these two groups. Native born people have an advantage in society. If you want to pay for bread, it helps when you speak the language. When you want to take part in the labour market, it helps when you speak the language. Precisely the fact that migrants are not as strong in that area makes it interesting to study this gap. It is important to determine how the size of the gap varies between countries, because it can provide hints about what destination countries themselves can do to reduce the gap.”

The researchers emphasize that the results are relative. A large gap doesn’t necessarily mean that migrants perform badly. It may very well mean that the natives do extremely well in the tests and that the migrants as well do better than in other countries. A good example of that is Sweden, where the gap is relatively large, not because migrants perform badly, but because the natives do much better than in other countries. In the Netherlands migrants do relatively well in general, but the natives as well. The gap does not occur in all countries. In Canada, for example, there is no gap at all. There, migrants perform even a bit better than the natives. That can be explained from the fact that Canada attracts relatively highly educated migrants.

The research shows that the composition of the migrant population with regard to educational level and age is important. However, the study also strongly suggests that three other elements play a role in explaining skill gaps. In a protected labour market, where employees are well protected against lay-offs, the skills gap between migrants and natives is bigger. It would seem that in protected labour markets migrants find a job less quickly and are therefore not able to use their skills in daily life and maintain them. A second finding concerns the role of the education system: in countries where educational institutions can better accommodate the specific needs of migrant children, the gap is smaller. A third remarkable finding is that ethnic diversity does not hamper the integration of migrants. On the contrary even: the more ethnically diverse a country’s population is, the smaller the gap in the field of numeracy and literacy skills. That is in line with the theoretical expectation that more ethnic diversity generates more contact between people from a different background. Such contacts seem beneficial to integration, both in the labour market as in society.

Can we draw lessons from this for policymaking? Mark Levels: “Whether or not one wants to reduce the gap is a political question, which is not up to us. We have only investigated how large the gap is in different countries, and whether institutions matter. From the finding that the main part of the gap can be explained by individual background characteristics such as educational level, age, country of origin, and demographic factors, one might conclude that countries should only admit highly educated migrants. That means selection at the border, which some countries indeed do. However, if governments wish to do something for the people that are already in their country, it might be good to make adjustments to education. Another option is making the labour market more flexible. But we have to formulate carefully. Before any policies can be made for this, there first has to be research into the causal influence of institutions on this gap. Our findings are robust and based on tested sociological and economic theories. Nonetheless, more research is needed and perhaps even urgent, given the role of migration in political debates about our society.”

Read here the full article on PLOS ONE.

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