CGHE series on The Critical Economics of Higher Education – webinar 1: Challenging the Skills Fetish

31st March 2022 : 14:00 - 15:00

Category: Webinar

Speaker: Leesa Wheelahan, University of Toronto; Gavin Moodie, University of Toronto

Location: Zoom webinar, registration required

The title and focus of this presentation comes from our recently published article ‘Challenging the Skills Fetish,’ together with James Doughney from Victoria University in Australia. It seeks to explain the dominance of human capital theory in post-compulsory education and to challenge its status as doxa, its taken-for-granted and unquestioned truth. Human capital theory posits that skills underwrite individual, firm and national prosperity, and that failure to invest in appropriate skills will lead to languishing.

We argue that human capital theory moved from being a descriptive theory in the 1960s and 1970s which sought to explain why individuals, firms and nations invested in increasingly higher levels of education, to a normative theory in the 1980s and 1990s, in which education should be about skills for work. And finally, in the 2000s, human capital theory has moved to a prescriptive framework where education must be about skills for work, and funding and policy is directed towards that goal. The paper traces the evolution of lifelong learning policies and shows how they narrowed to progressively focus on skills for work. It draws an analogy with Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism to argue that human capital theory fetishises skill as something that exists independently of the bodies of those who exercise skill and of the social context which enables and gives value to people’s exercise of their skills. Human capital conceptions of skill are based on methodological and normative individualism, and contribute to the degradation of education, work and social life.

Further readingChallenging the skills fetishBritish Journal of Sociology of Education, March 2022


About the CGHE webinar series on the Alternative Economics of Higher Education

No social science has a greater influence in the funding, provision, and management of higher education than economics.

In the United Kingdom, where the Centre for Global Higher Education is based, higher education is modelled as a market of competing institutions; students are modelled as consumers, human capital, and potential skilled workers for economic growth rather than learners engaged in self-development; and the quality of courses and institutions is ranked on the basis of graduate salaries, generating the so-called ‘low value courses’ syndrome. Higher education is imagined simply as a branch of the economy and one-size fits all economic approaches are used, as if teaching, research and university social engagement in all domains are driven by the same laws of motion.

However, the promises of human capital theory appear increasingly flawed and associated economic frameworks struggle in the face of growth of tertiary systems, entrenched social inequalities, global inequalities, different paths to national development, and stretched labour markets. This raises a range of critical questions about the way in which the relationship between HE and the economy is conceptualised. Does this orthodox economic thinking get it right? Does it adequately capture the specific economic features let alone the social and cultural features of higher education? What are the costs of using economic frameworks rooted in human capital theory? Is the fundamental role of higher education to feed a growing capitalist economy, or does it have a larger and more transformative contribution to make? Are there other approaches to the economics of higher education that would serve us all better? What are countries and policy makers doing around the world in fashioning an economic framework appropriate to the way the higher education sector works and to meet the needs of all of its users and non-users?

This webinar series is designed to start, to support, to air and to discuss new thinking about the economics of higher education. It will hear from speakers who are unsatisfied with the economic policy frameworks currently in use and determined to find and apply better alternatives.

This webinar is part of the free public seminar programme hosted by the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE).