CGHE series on The Critical Economics of Higher Education – webinar 4: Agency, purposeful work, and economic change: reconceptualising the relationship between HE and the economy

12th April 2022 : 14:00 - 15:00

Category: Webinar

Speaker: James Robson, University of Oxford

Location: Zoom webinar, registration required

Human capital theory has underpinned the way the relationship between HE and the economy has been conceptualised for the last 50 years. However, the core tenet that learning equals earning has consistently been shown to be flawed in the face of social inequalities, febrile labour markets, and complex economic settings. Recent critiques of human capital theory have focused on the educational purposes of HE, but often underplaying the critical economic role that universities play in family aspirations, students’ hopes for their future careers, and broader local, national and global economies. There is, therefore, an urgent need to reconceptualise the relationship between HE and the economy that takes into account both the educational purposes and the economic purposes of HE.

In this webinar, I attempt to begin to do this by drawing on data from two recent studies: interviews with the Chairs and CEOs from approximately a third of the FTSE100; and interviews with 100 students and graduates about their careers. Data show that what motivates students and graduates is not, as traditional economics holds, the pursuit of happiness, utility, or profits, but interest in knowledge, engagement in worthwhile endeavours, and a sense of purpose in their careers. At the same time, the expectations of this new generation of employees are increasingly forcing companies to be more values-driven, stakeholder-oriented, and purposeful. This illustrates the power of both individuals, and the educational institutions that help shape them, to disrupt the socially destructive norms of shareholder capitalism. I therefore argue that, when talking about the economic role of HE, we need to move away from language of outcomes and meeting employer skills demands. Instead, using language of ‘purpose’, the economic role of HE should be reimagined through the lens of agency and focused on supporting graduates to become purposeful agents of economic change that demand meaningful, value-driven, and purposeful employment.


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).