Rwanda is perhaps most well-known for the genocide it experienced in the 1990s. In its post-conflict development, the country has had to balance colonial legacies, state centralizing tendencies, and the zeitgeist of neoliberalism. This has made for a careful balancing — one that has left the government regulating the society and economy while simultaneously reducing its responsibility to citizens.

In education, this balancing act manifests in the government’s three aims: credentials, controls, and creativity. The education system is based on credentials awarded through examinations, a colonial hangover, and controls students as part of the state’s centralization efforts; yet, somehow, the system promotes creativity so students can pursue a learner-centered education tailored to their own needs, preparing them for the 21st century labor market of precarious work.

My guest today, Catherine Honeyman, has a new book that explores Rwanda’s opportunities, challenges, and paradoxes in post-conflict development through the policy of mandatory entrepreneurship education, which is believed to be the country’s beacon for economic growth. Catherine Honeyman is a visiting scholar at the Duke Center for International Development and Managing Director of Ishya Consulting. Her new book, The Orderly Entrepreneur, takes us inside both policy making circles and classrooms to understand part of Rwanda’s social transformation. The Orderly Entrepreneur received an honorable mention from the Globalization and Education SIG’s 2016 Book Award.

Citation: Honeyman, Catherine, A., interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 64, podcast audio, March 13, 2017. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/catherinehoneyman/

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What is the connection between education and the economy? For many neoclassical economists, the connection is found in Human Capital theory.

My guest today, Professor Steve Klees, thinks human capital theory and rates of return analyses are very problematic.

In our conversation, Steve talks about his new article, “Human Capital and Rates of Return: Brilliant Ideas or ideological dead ends?”, which can be found in the latest issue of the Comparative Education Review. He takes us through human capital theory, its internal logical fallacies, and proposes a set of alternatives.

Steve Klees is a professor of International Education Policy in the College of Education, University of Maryland.

Citation: Klees, Steve, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 54, podcast audio, December 5, 2016. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/steveklees/

Will Brehm  1:45
Steve Klees, welcome to FreshEd.,

Steve Klees  1:52
I’m very glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

Will Brehm  1:55
You are an economist by training. But you have spent most of your career in the comparative and international education field. How do economists typically think about, or look at education?

Steve Klees  2:12
That’s a huge question, but the answer really depends on what kind of economist you’re talking about; they’re different schools of thought. But the the main dominant school of thought is called neoclassical economics. And neoclassical economics is really about competitive capitalist market systems. And within that education is a very important piece of understanding education, economics and development. In particular, neoclassical economists have developed something they call “human capital theory” that is a framework for understanding education’s role in the economy and in society.

Will Brehm  3:10
And how is human capital theory measured? How do economists see human capital?

Steve Klees  3:22
Well, human capital is a latecomer to economics, to neoclassical economics. Neoclassical economics goes back to Adam Smith, and the Wealth of Nations in the 1700s and the term “neoclassical” actually was coined at the end of the 1800s, and it’s about how a competitive market system operates. Human capital theory wasn’t developed till the late 1950s, early 1960s. Prior to human capital theory, economists understood the economy in terms of supply and demand, you’d always see economists talking about supply and demand – of small companies, small firms, small households competing with each other – and trying to understand how that competition worked, what you got out of it, how a market system worked.

Prior to human capital theory, economists had a lot of difficulty understanding labor and work. Labor prior to human capital theory was an anomaly. It wasn’t something you could talk about in terms of supply and demand. The economists in those days, in the 50s, look more like sociologists; it was a whole field of labor economics where they studied real world labor, they studied strikes, they studied unions, they studied how large firms operated. But education didn’t really fit into that structure at all – that way of thinking. And there were odd people out in neoclassical economics because they were more like sociologists, and they weren’t talking about competitive market structures and supply and demand, and human capital changed all that

Will Brehm  5:28
How so?

Steve Klees  5:29
Well, it really made economists able to talk and think about education and labor. Labor, especially, as a commodity like any other commodity that’s bought and sold on a marketplace, that has a price, that’s determined by supply and demand in the marketplace. Human Capital theory developed because it was explaining puzzles. People were trying to understand how economies grew. And they understood that there were more workers, and there was more capital investment, but they didn’t really have any idea about quality of work. And the whole idea of human capital, was it explained better, to neoclassical economists anyway, why some countries grew faster versus slower. They called it a revolution in thought, and the idea behind it was essentially simple – that education wasn’t just a consumer good, it was an investment. It was an investment in individuals, and it was an investment by society and societal development.

Will Brehm  6:48
So in a sense, it would be that if an individual were to receive education, or more education than another, they or he or she would be more productive in an economy, and maybe measured through income? Is this the way the neoclassical economists were seeing this?

Steve Klees  7:12
Yes. They looked at two outcomes of education in particular They looked at earnings, and they weren’t interested in private benefits as much; earnings were a benefit to you, income is a benefit to you. But they were interested in, within their framework earnings as a proxy for people’s productivity, like you said. And so, they were trying to get a handle on education’s connection to individual productivity. And secondly, education’s direct influence on economic growth, its effect on gross national product. So you saw starting in the 60s, lots of studies of the “rate of return”, they called it, the return on investment. So education in terms of earnings as a proxy for productivity, and in terms of economic growth measured by gross national product.

Will Brehm  8:15
So based on the rate of return methodology is is some education better than other education for foreign economy or for foreign individuals’ productivity?

Steve Klees  8:27
Yes. I should explain a little bit about rates of return. Rates of return are a measure of benefits and costs. In neoclassical economics, the private sector is motivated by profit. Profit is a signal that this endeavor is valuable. Adam Smith talked about the invisible hand of supply and demand working in the public interest. That’s the profits supposedly representing where peoples’ benefits exceed their costs; where the outcome of whatever you’re making, tables or software or whatever, the benefits exceed the costs. And so economists were looking for something as analogous to that in the public sector. So the idea was to explicitly study the benefits and costs of public sector activities, whatever field, education, health care, environment, transportation, and rate of return is a summary measure, after you figure out what are all the benefits to an education investment, what are all the costs of that investment, and it’s a summary measure to try and get at  – gosh, you know, you’re making 20% on your investment, the benefits exceed costs by 20%. And so that’s applied to lots of different types of educational activities, and other sector activities, to study the returns to education, of various types of vocational education versus academic education; of higher different levels of education, higher education versus early childhood, or primary education; different programs of education. Anything where you can find reasonable monetary measures of outcomes. Sometimes you can’t do that, you’re just looking at test score differences between different programs. And then economists do a more limited array of what they call “cost effectiveness” analysis. But mostly economists really like to go after cost-benefit analysis, because that gives them a metric that they can compare with returns in the private sector: Is this a better investment to take your money out of the private sector, tax it and put in an education or health care or environmental protection?

Will Brehm  11:13
This sort of thinking of cost-benefit analysis of education to an economy, do you see this is problematic in anyway?

Steve Klees  11:24
Yes, the paper you mentioned that I did, and actually much of my work over the last – I hesitate to say it – 40 years (I’ve been working in this field for a while) has been with the problems of neoclassical economics, generally. And more specifically, with the internal dynamic, the internal problems with that field that gives you measures like benefit-cost studies of rates of return. My work has been recently basically saying that even not taking in a critical outside neoclassical economics look, which we can talk about in a little bit, of political economy perspective, for example. But even if you take the neoclassical economics perspective, there are so many problems within that framework, that for me, the benefit-cost analysis/rate of return type measures just fall apart; that they become almost meaningless.

Will Brehm  12:41
How, so? Let’s dig into it, human capital theory, rates of return analyses. If you’re saying that there are problems of the internal logic of neoclassical economics for human capital theory, and for rates of return analysis, can you can you dig more into that? Like how, so? What are some examples of this?

Steve Klees  13:05
I don’t know whether to start with the details or the broader picture. Let me just start with the broader picture, because I think, then the problems with the details become clearer. And the broader picture really revolves around one central idea of neoclassical economics, and that’s the idea of economic efficiency or societal efficiency. They sometimes called it Pareto efficiency after an Italian economist a century ago called Pareto, and it’s a complex idea that I find completely unsound and unreal. And I’ll try and explain the idea briefly, explain why I think it’s unsound, and then give you how it manifests itself in this cost-benefit/rate of return type studies. So efficiency is something, you know, it’s a common sense concept. So to us, people talk about efficiency of this or that; it’s an engineering concept, it’s a physics concept of, you know, you can do more with less somehow. But in education, you can talk about it sensibly, right? Limited ideas of efficiency, like you can talk about an educational system as inefficient because it has a lot of dropouts, or a lot of people repeating grades, or a lot of people who aren’t learning much. So there’s a common sense idea of efficiency that makes sense to all of us. And I have no objections to that. It’s the economist concept of efficiency that’s problematic. And that’s not about an individual sector or individual project, as much as it’s the overall society is deemed economically efficient if it operates according to the assumptions of a very highly competitive market framework that in abstract neoclassical economics discussion is called “perfect competition”. Perfect competition is a competitive system that is so highly competitive that you’ve got many buyers and many sellers of identical products: that nobody’s big, nobody can influence prices, they’re all taking prices in the market, they’re all small potatoes. Consumers and producers are the two major motivators and movers of the economy. Consumers are just out there maximizing their happiness, and producers are just out there maximizing their profits. And if everything functions according to, and information is perfect, you know everything about everything. If you operate according to these simple assumptions, the whole economy is deemed efficient. And what they mean by that is that somehow, not only is there no waste, you’re you’re doing everything as cheaply as you possibly can. But you’ve got the right balance of everything, the correct balance of everything. So you’re producing the right amount of chairs and tables, and movies and hamburgers, and software. There’s something called “correct balance”. And that’s what’s efficient in this. And it’s completely separable from their other major concept, which is equity or fairness or the distribution of these things. So the distribution is sort of irrelevant to efficiency. You can have an efficient society in which half the people in the world are starving. That’s that can be efficient, because efficiency is just about those people who have effective demand, meaning they have money. And they can wave that money in the marketplace and demand goods and services. And so efficiency is really to economists about forgetting equity, forgetting distribution. Are we producing as much as possible with the inputs of land/labor/capital/technology that we have? In the theory, and in practice, this is just simply absurd.

There’s actually in theory neoclassical economists have something called “second best theory”. And second best theory says that if you don’t live in the first best world of perfect competition with all those tight assumptions – unreal, impossible assumptions – but let’s say have one monopoly in one sector in which everything else is highly competitive, second best says in the second best world with just one imperfection, you have no idea if the economy’s efficient at all, there’s no idea if it’s close to efficient at all. Because this framework is so tight that you only get this overall efficiency of the correct balance of things if prices are the accurate signal sending benefit and costs signals to producers that act in the public interest. With one price off, all of the prices are affected. So in practice, efficiency demands, for example, that you have the correct balance, the correct inputs balance of producing yachts for rich people and rice and beans for poor people. Well, that’s just a distributional issue to me. That’s an equity issue to me. There’s no right balance of yachts and rice and beans; there’s no right balance of computer software, higher education, early childhood education, nutritional programs, roads building. There’s no correct balance of that. And in practice, there’s just no vantage point in the sky. That’s what this efficiency idea is. Where you could separate what we produce from who gets it. They’re all integrally tied in practice. And this is what in practice they’re trying to do with cost-benefit analysis of rate of return: get an idea of whether something in particular is efficient or not.

Will Brehm  20:06
Just hearing that, it just makes me think that the theory of the world in neoclassical economics doesn’t match the reality that I live in. I mean, certainly people do not have perfect information when it comes to to buying anything. But at the same time, I also think that this separation of equity and distribution from efficiency seems to have actually happened. The world I see today, there seems to be a huge gap between the rich and the poor, that those eating rice and beans and those on their yachts.

Steve Klees  20:48
Yes, absolutely. The real world today is very problematic in terms of distribution, as we all know. In terms of equity.

Will Brehm  21:04
How is this embodied in rates of return?

Steve Klees  21:08
The whole efficiency framework is translated into guidelines for the public sector through cost-benefit analysis. And not costs and benefits to private individuals they’re after, they’re after costs and benefits to society as a whole. Because they want to correct the market, to account for all the costs and benefits to society as a whole. And so if you’re thinking about education, you think about the benefits of education. They buy benefits in terms of earnings to an individual. That’s a benefit to society if earnings reflect productivity. That’s problematic because earnings are a price, and prices are distorted in real world economies. So there’s no reason to believe that earnings reflect productivity at all. Earnings are determined by market power, by the vagaries of who’s got skills and who doesn’t have skills, on where firms do their business. So the idea of earnings as a proxy for productivity is a problem.

A second problem is that even if you wanted earnings as a proxy for productivity, that’s just one individual benefit. That is a social benefit, because it measures productivity, but there are what they call externalities. There are benefits to other people who were not included in the market transaction, you decide how much education you’re getting, some supplier gives it to you, a public school or private school, a training program, the benefits to education go way beyond you. And those are not taken into account in the market. So when there are benefits beyond the individual, they’re called externalities, because the market doesn’t take them into account. And therefore, the market is making inefficient decisions, because it’s not counting all the benefits. So in education, you can think of lots of benefits that aren’t just to you, your education benefits other people through your coworker productivity, through your family, through household health decisions, through helping your children, through lowering crime rates, through lowering welfare rates. It’s got lots of these external effects. And the second problem with rates of return is measuring those all are very problematic.

And the third problem with rates of return is that even if we were trusting earnings as a good measure, it’s very hard, I would say impossible, to figure out the effect of education on earnings. This goes to our problems, not neoclassical economics, but our problems with research methods generally. Separating our causes from effect, impact evaluation is extremely difficult to the point where I think it can’t be done quantitatively. If, for example, you took 1000 people and you ask them what’s their income, and then you try to figure out what are the dozens of factors that make those incomes different. And then you’ve actually tried to build a mathematical model that would separate those dozens of factors, so that you could say, “Well, their income went up, because they were a union this much, because they had another year of education this much, because they were in a high demand field this much, because they were healthy that much.” I mean, it boggles the mind. I’ve done another paper on the economist statistical procedure called regression analysis that tries to do that – it tries to take the dozens of factors affecting some outcome and separate them out. And my view is that we just can’t do that. So that even the minimal idea of looking at the impact of education on individual earnings is problematic. Taking them all together, I find rates of return and cost-benefit analysis, generally not a good basis for decision-making.

Will Brehm  25:48
But yet, it has been. These methods and this particular theory have been dominant and have been used to make decisions in education systems, among other sectors. So what’s the scholarly track record of those using rates of return and human capital theory? All of the critiques that you put forward seem very plausible to me, but yet rates of return and human capital theory has had quite the long longevity in academic research.

Steve Klees  26:23
Yes, it’s certainly has. And just two things to say in response to that. One is you asked about their track record, and in terms of track record, there’s no testing this. This isn’t something you can predict and then find out was a true. Because, I say the rate of return to expanding higher education is 12% in your country at this time. Is that a good investment, if you decide 12% is a good return, and you put your money in. But there’s no validation of whether you got 12% or not, so there’s no track record in terms of these predictions. They’re making predictions now, for example, about education and GNP. And I just find those scary and absurd. There’s some very interesting economists, very competent economists doing this. Eric Hanushek and [Ludger] Woessmann, and they tried to do regression analysis to say if your PISA scores go up (the PISA being that international test that people take as a proxy for cognitive achievement), how much will your GNP go up? And they come to these conclusions like a 10% increase in cognitive skills gives you a 2% boost on GDP and if everybody moved a standard deviation on PISA, your GNP would grow seven times in the next 30 years. I mean, this is carrying this framework to an absurdity to me. They can’t separate out the impact of education from the dozens and dozens of other factors that influence GDP or GNP, and then to take that out as its influence now and project that 30 or 40 years in the future is just the height of irrational use of a framework of this kind. And I understand why they do it. These are reasonable people, you want good information for decision-making, and to economists, this idea of efficiency, separable from equity is the touchstone.

But the real question for me is the second question you asked: basically, why has this framework been dominant for so long? And neoclassical economists would say at the very simple answer – it’s because of its explanatory power. It explains differences in investments in health and differences in individual behavior. And it’s true, I mean, in differences in individual behavior, this is useful framework because your decisions are affected by the returns to you, and you make decisions about your educational investment versus your investment in health care, versus your decision to go to a movie or your decision to buy a house, about returns to you. And that’s fine. So there is some use for this framework in terms of understanding people’s motivations. But in terms of societal’s efficiency and investment preferences, this framework is bankrupt and it’s empty. So to me, and to many critics, it’s not the dominant framework because of its explanatory power, it’s the dominant framework because it fits. Human capital theory is embedded in neoclassical economics, and that’s embedded in capital market – it fits with a capitalist market economy. The critics would argue the reason there’s so much attention to efficiency and rates of return and technical views of whether you invest in this thing, or that and how much do you do is because it makes sense in terms of efficiency. If you lose that efficiency framework, you realize that this is just a way to support a market system. This is neoclassical economics is an ideological justification for capitalist market systems to be efficient. To act in everybody’s interests aside from equity. If you question that, then you can see neoclassical economics generally, and human capital theory, as basically an ideological framework and ideological bulwark.

The whole skills discourse today comes from human capital theory and a skills discourse seems like common sense. It says if people only had better skills, they would be better off, and their countries and societies would be better off. That skills discourse based as it is on human capital theory and neoclassical economics is very problematic. People today have talked about the “triple economic challenge” that we face, and they talk about the three things: job creation; poverty elimination; and inequality reduction. Human capital theory and neoclassical economics generally gives one simplistic answer to all three challenges: lack of skills or equivalently, the mismatch between what education is producing and what businesses in the economy need. For the critics, lack of skills is not why people are poor, are not why jobs are scarce, and not why societies are so unequal. The culprit for the critics is that the very structure of the world system in which we are living, capitalism most particularly, but patriarchy, racism and other structures. Those very structures are problematic. While capitalism has increased our ability to produce material goods tremendously, so it looks very productive in that way, in another sense, it’s one of the most inefficient and destructive structures that you can imagine. Why? Because almost half the world – the World Bank says 3 billion people – are relegated to the margins of society. Capitalism has not created jobs for them, livelihoods for them. For the vast majority of our global population, if capitalism was an efficient system, we would be taking advantage of the skills and develop the skills of the 7 billion people on the planet and produced a lot more. Capitalism in its 200, 300 years hasn’t done that, and isn’t doing that. You know, some people talk about we live in a meritocracy. What nonsense! These 3 billion people are relegated to the margins of society because they’re not meritorious? It’s not that at all. It’s poverty, unemployment and inequality, not to mention environmental destruction and other problems, are not failures of capitalism, as they’re sometimes seen, but the logical outcome of its inherent structure. So that that in many ways, contrary to prevailing economic views, human capital has been a very destructive discourse. This is contrary to what the majority of economists think as it’s been brilliant, but it’s been a destructive discourse, because it’s really blamed individuals for their lack of skills, their lack of investment in the right skills, the lack of good choices. And so instead of understanding problematic structures that we need to do something about, we’ve been directing attention towards the supply of individuals and how to fix that. And we’ve been fixing it for decades. And the payoff with poor countries is abysmal. And the payoff even within rich countries is abysmal. The inequalities within the US, the level of hunger in the United States, the level of marginalization, the level of poor dead end jobs, the level of insecurity, the level of environmental destruction, this is not an efficient system.

Will Brehm  36:04
Turning to alternatives. I mean, is it even possible, or can we even have an education system in a capitalist economy without human capital theory? It almost seems like many of these problems that we see in education in terms of equity that you were just mentioning stem from the capitalist economic systems that that are pervasive in most countries. So how can we envision and create education systems in alternative ways that account for equity while still being in capitalist economies?

Steve Klees  36:48
Yes. All you’re asking today’s tough questions.

Will Brehm  36:55
I apologize.

Steve Klees  36:57
That’s okay. Let me preface my response to education with a little bit on how these alternatives are viewed to the very structures in which we live. Because education can only be successful if it’s a part of a challenge to those structures in fundamental ways. And there’s a lot of alternatives. Everything is contested terrain in this world; everything is up for grabs, up for debates with different views. So I view the alternative to neoclassical economics as what I call “political economy”. Political economy is a contested term and people on the right use it as well as people on the left. I’m using it more from the left of center point of view of critics of capitalism, critics of other world system structures. And for me, a political economy perspective today raises questions about the structures of the world system in which we live.

It’s the intersection of feminist perspectives, of post- perspectives, postcolonial, post structural, neo-Marxist perspectives, queer theories about heterosexism in society, disability theories, critical race theories. Not that these theories are identical, not that these approaches are identical, but all of them see marginalization as central, and all of them see marginalization not as failures of the world system -they’re failures for sure – but more is a logical consequence of the structures of patriarchy and racism and capitalism in which we live. And while there’s agreement that reproduction is pervasive, that is this marginalization is not an aberration, systems are out there that reproduce and legitimate marginalization and inequality. And the education system is part of that, as are all of the systems in which we live.

But the critics, the political economists, as I label them agree that while reproduction is pervasive, there are lots of spaces for progressive action. Through exercising individual and collective agency. You have the ability, and especially collectively, we have the ability to challenge these structures. And collective challenge is perhaps the watchword of political economists. Social movements like the women’s movement, like the civil rights movement. These are worldwide now. Like the landless movement in Brazil and now other countries. The poorest people in the world are organized and having an influence on policy. The untouchable movement in India, not anti-globalization, but the alter-globalization movement and in human rights movements and the children rights movement. And so there’s lots of examples of contestation at the systemic level and in education.

There’s lots of examples in every education in every city, in every country, and in every school system of what political economists call more progressive approaches to education. The legacy of people at Paolo Freire, the famous Brazilian educator who founded a field that we call today “critical pedagogy”. Critical pedagogy is a political economy approach to education, arguing that while reproduction is pervasive in schools, there’s lots of ways to challenge that. And so people, individual teachers challenge that all the time. They close their doors to their classroom, they use different learning materials, they teach their students differently about fairness, about equity, about the structures in which they live, they raise questions on that. And it’s not just individual teachers, there are systems of it. In Brazil, the landless movement which I just mentioned, have their own schools that are Freirean, that are participatory, that are so different from the technicist technical approach to education that we have today throughout the world. In Brazil, something called the citizen school movement that, again, is very participatory, that involves the community. We say “community involvement” all the time, but this is serious community involvement. This is serious democracy for students, for teachers, for administrators, participating and directing curriculum, directing grading, making decisions at a local level together, and sometimes very explicitly challenging the types of feeding education into work and into the labor market that dominates so strongly. On the alternative, for most political economists, when you reject the sort of functionalist view of sociologists, of society, of efficiency of markets, and say, “This is not something in which everybody is benefiting, there’s conflict here, there’s different interests, and the only way that’s going to change is through struggle, through individual and collective struggle.”

What that means in terms of alternative system-wide is difficult to say. At a minimum, where we’re not a neoliberal form of capitalism. Capitalism in the 60s, and 70s was a much more liberal capitalism in which government intervention was recognized as necessary to correct the ills that were essentially built into the structure of capitalism. Neoliberalism starting in the 80s with Reagan and Thatcher and Kohl in Germany said: Government is the problem, the market is the solution. We need to get away from that. We need to restore the legitimacy of government action, we’ve got the sustainable development goals of the United Nations on the table. Goals that are very ambitious about improving the world, we’re not going to get there under neoliberal capitalism. We’re not going to get there when we think it’s illegitimate for government to direct action. We’re not going to get there if everything is a public-private partnership and depends on corporate profitability in order to direct that system.

And maybe we have to move beyond capitalism. At the local level there’s lots of alternatives. And  broadly speaking, it’s the subject to a whole another conversation. And I have a paper coming out next year on capitalism in education that talks about alternatives, so maybe we’ll do another podcast there. But the broad answer is, you need to build towards a more participatory democracy and more towards a workplace democracy. The problem with capitalism is that our workplace is authoritarian. We teach democracy in the political sphere; we don’t have a lot of that at a very participatory level either. But we need democracy in the workplace as well.

Will Brehm  45:28
It seems like a lot of what you’re saying is that we have to think beyond the connection of education as being for the development of human capital, and having a different value of education. And there can be many it sounds like, and many different ways of achieving those values or putting those values into action. But it seems like that’s the first step: decoupling, or de-linking the connection between education and human capital development.

Steve Klees  46:05
No, I would agree. And to be fair to human capital theorists, some of them recognize that broad connection. It’s got narrowed in practice so much that all we’re looking at as the connection to education to the workplace. But citizenship can be subsumed in that human capital framework. The problem is its basis in efficiency. You want to talk about the many things education does, the many more things we want it to do. We don’t want to just make education about workplace. We don’t want to make education just about literacy and numeracy. We need education for peacebuilding, for people to not be aggressive, for people to be fair with each other, for people to have resilience, and people to be creative. So there’s lots of purposes of education, and human capital theory and practices just narrow the field too much. And more broadly speaking about this political economy framework versus a more mainstream dominant human capital neoclassical framework, the political economy framework doesn’t offer the technical policy guidance that rates of return give. For neoclassical economists, policies are a dime a dozen. You just do your cost-benefit analysis and this year, vocational education is better than academic education, higher education is better than primary education.

If you reject that framework, what you have is human capital theory, neoclassical economics – our ideologies masking as science. It’s absurd to think that there’s some way to assess technically, the tradeoff between higher education and primary education, between education and health and the environment. All we have is a messy, participatory democratic struggle of individuals and groups with some common interests and some different interests. And for me, what we have to do is find ways to facilitate that struggle and in doing so, economics and the dominant scientific perspective says you need to stay neutral and objective. For me, I’ve learned that you always take sides. That when I write a paper, when I teach a class, when I’m doing research, when I engage in policy, when I engage in my life, I always have to take a side. And if you don’t think you’re taking a side, you are because this is a struggle. This is contestation. And I guess my concluding point is that for me, this is what I said in the paper you cited, neoclassical economics and human capital theory are ideological dead ends. But fortunately for all of us, there are lots of alternatives.

Will Brehm  49:29
Well, Steve, Klees, you gave us a lot to think about in this conversation. Thank you so much for joining FreshEd, and you’re definitely welcome back when that new paper comes out on capitalism in education.

Steve Klees  49:41
Thank you very much for having me.

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Today marks the first installment of a seven-part miniseries on Global Learning Metrics. In effort to promote the inaugural Symposium of the Comparative and International Education Society, FreshEd will air interviews with some of the invited speakers.

It’s been over two months since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Right after it happened, I invited Prof. Susan Robertson on FreshEd to talk about the possible consequences the Brexit vote would have on education. During that conversation, I asked if this vote would open the possibility for a new left to emerge within the British Labour Party.

Well, how have things turned out?

To update the situation in the United Kingdom, I recently spoke with Mario Novelli. Mario Novelli is Professor of the Political Economy of Education and Director of the Centre for International Education (CIE) at the University of Sussex. For years, Mario has followed the solidarity work of Jeremy Corbyn, who is now Leader of the labour party and currently in a leadership battle with Owen Smith.

This short episode of FreshEd has been taken from a longer conversation I had with Mario about his research on inequality and education, which will air on September 12.

The Global Partnership for Education is a powerful multi-stakeholder organization in educational development. It funnels millions of dollars to develop education systems in dozens of low-income countries. Yet the board of directors of the organization strategically avoids some of the most important and controversial topics in education today.

My guest today, Francine Menashy, has researched the Global Partnership for Education and the ways in which its board of directors avoids the topic of low-fee private schools, which is a heavily debated idea in both education policy and research.

Francine Menashy is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Leadership in Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She researches aid to education and non-state sector engagement, including the policies of international organizations, companies, and philanthropies.

Her research discussed in today’s show was funded through a fellowship with the National Academy of Education and the Spencer Foundation.

Citation:Menashy, Francine, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 33, podcast audio, July 21, 2016. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/francinemenashy/

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Human capital theory connects education to the labor market. It posits that more education makes workers more productive, which increases earnings. A more educated and productive workforce subsequently increases the gross domestic product of a nation. This theory has been prevalent since the 1950s and continues to play a central role in minds of both policy makers and parents. You go to school because you will get a better job in the future. The government invests in education because it will have a return on investment in larger GDPs.

My guest today says human capital theory is dead.

Hugh Lauder is Professor of Education and Political Economy at the University of Bath. He specialises in the relationship of education to the economy and has for over 10 years worked on national skill strategies and more recently on the global skill strategies of multinational companies.

Citation: Lauder, Hugh, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 29, podcast audio, July 21, 2016. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/hughlauder/

Will Brehm  0:15
Hugh Lauder, welcome to FreshEd.

Hugh Lauder  0:24
Pleased to be here.

Will Brehm  1:08
Human capital theory is such a common place theory in many respects, because when people think about education, they think of it as for human capital development. What is human capital?

Hugh Lauder  1:54
Okay, so I need to take you back a little to the beginning of the theory. The theory was the first sophisticated account of the relationship between education and the economy, and it said that basically people who were better educated would be more productive. And in being more productive, they would then earn a higher income. So that brought education into the picture because what it required was for higher numbers of people to be educated in order they could become more productive so economies could grow, and their income would also accordingly grow. So that’s the basic idea behind it. And it’s an idea, of course, which has permeated through society. It first began really in Chicago in the 1950s at the university there in the Economics department. And then policymakers took it on board and policymakers thought, “Wow, we’ve got a win-win here. Because what’s happening is that if we increase the opportunities for education, so our economies will grow, so people will gain a greater income.” And at the same time, there’s a kind of connection with social justice. So that, for example, as long as people are prepared to work hard and are motivated in terms of education, then they will get their just rewards. And they’ll get their just rewards because employers will always choose the most talented; those that are likely to be most productive. So underlying what seems like an economic theory is actually also a theory of meritocracy. So that’s the economists, that’s the policymakers. And on top of that, of course, now we have parents and students who are going, “Okay, if I want a good job, then I’ve got to get a good education.” So that’s basically the idea behind human capital theory.

Will Brehm  4:01
And it’s led to some interesting notions in education like this rate of return. Can you talk a little bit about what this notion is?

Hugh Lauder  4:11
Yes, sure. So how do economists know, and policymakers know that this claim that education will lead to increased productivity, which will lead to increased income? Well, not how do they know it, but how do they make that assumption? They make that assumption by saying, “Let’s have a look at the rates of return for different kinds of education and skill in the economy.” And in the past – not now, but in the past – what they seem to have found is that the better educated you are, the greater your rate of return in terms of your income.

Will Brehm  4:52
So more schooling means higher income in the future.

Hugh Lauder  4:55
That was the idea, yes.

Will Brehm  4:58
So it’s like it’s predicting the future in many ways; that’s what they’re trying to do.

Hugh Lauder  5:02
For sure it is.  Yes, they really thought that they had a theory which would actually explain and predict the future. And in fact, it has been a theory which has been around, as I said earlier, since the 1950s. And so in terms of social science theories, it’s one of the longest living. But it’s now coming to an end.

Will Brehm  5:27
Before we go into those critiques about the end of human capital theory, can you talk a little bit about what sort of impact it had since the 1950s on education, on education policy, on education development?

Hugh Lauder  5:44
I think the impact has come about in a number of ways. First of all, one of the immediate forms of impact was in development. So the World Bank took on the notion of human capital theory and has argued consistently, since the 80s, that human capital embodied in educated workers would raise the income of countries and of individuals in developing countries. So that was one clear example of the consequence of that particular theory. But, at the same time, it’s also been the case that in developed countries, it’s been seen that if you can increase your higher education system, then you’ll also get a win-win. You get the win-win because people will earn more money as workers and countries will have higher levels of gross domestic product. So these have been the two major consequences of the theory. But it’s also had an extra twist. And that was the notion of the knowledge economy. And the knowledge economy, which sort of started to develop as an idea in the late 80s, also seem to reinforce the idea that we now needed more educated workers. And the more educated workers there would be, so they would become more productive. And this was known as skill bias theory because at the heart of this form of human capital theory was the idea that technology would drive the demand for higher educated workers. So the skill would be biased in favor of the technology and the demand for higher skills.

Will Brehm  7:34
And it would be education that would provide those skills to operate that technology that is driving the economy?

Hugh Lauder  7:44
Precisely that. Yes. Now in more recent times, economists have become a little more sophisticated in one sense and they’ve started to look at particular kinds of skill for which there’s a higher return. But at the same time they’ve been kind of “atomizing” education into particular kinds of skill. So employers have gone in the other direction, and very often look at potential employees holistically. They want to know about their all-around capability in character, rather than also the specific skills.

Will Brehm  8:21
The work that I’ve done in in Cambodia, I’m just amazed by the prevalence of the idea of human capital being the main purpose of education. It is always meant to build and develop human capital because it will increase incomes, and also increase GDPs of the nation. And the conversations that we have are always about this idea of projecting into the future: what sort of economy Cambodia is going to have in 2030, for instance, and what skills are needed? And it just seems like it’s a fool’s errand of trying to predict the skills that are needed in the economy in 2030 for a country like Cambodia that’s rapidly changing; for a global economy that’s rapidly changing.

Hugh Lauder  9:14
Yes, I think this is a very good point. Let me just step back for a moment and say that in developing countries, there are certain sorts of skill that are clearly required for their development. And these forms of skill are to do with the state and state workers. They’re to do with various forms of craft work, so electricians, builders of various sorts, carpenters, that kind of thing. You need those kinds of skill. But the idea that you can predict in 2030 what’s going to happen is more problematic. And it’s more problematic, because just at the time when these developing countries are emerging into the global economy, so many of the techniques which are adopted in the global economy will hit them hard. So, for example, computer algorithms – what Phil Brown, my coauthor, and I  have called “digital Taylorism” – that is moving up the skill chain very quickly, and robots. So, for example, if you look at China right now, there are less people in manufacturing in China now than there were in 2000. So in other words, many of the techniques which have been used in the knowledge economy – and actually it’s not the knowledge economy, its knowledge capitalism, because capitalism is always trying to reduce the cost of labor, including skilled labor – many of those techniques that have been developed in the developed countries are now being applied to developing countries. So that makes it kind of problematic as well.

Will Brehm  10:57
Let’s shift to your specific critiques of human capital theory. What do you find so problematic about the theory itself, maybe not the method that’s employed by the theory?

Hugh Lauder  11:11
Okay, let’s have a look at the theory itself. We start with education, and that’s meant to lead to greater productivity, which is then meant to lead to greater income for the individual and the GDP of the country. Well, when we look at that set of connections, we find that they are all problematic. They’re all problematic for this reason: That first of all, education. There’s now considerable split amongst economists as to what we mean by education. Is it something as I suggested earlier, which is a form of all-round development of an individual? Or is it about particular skills? And that debate has really not taken off yet, but it will. So the education itself in terms of human capital – ‘what is the capital’ is a problem. Then when you look at productivity, what we see overall is that there are more and more educated people in the world, more and more educated people in particular countries like the UK or USA, and yet productivity is either flatlining or is very uneven. So the link between education and productivity is now become wholly problematic. Then when you look at the relationship between productivity and income, it becomes even more problematic because what you see is that instead of workers getting rewarded for their productivity, since around 1978 to 1980 in the United States and the United Kingdom, what you see is that increasingly, the wealthy are creaming off the productivity of other workers. So there are problems with all these different accounts of the relationship between education, productivity and income.

Will Brehm  13:10
So this would be the Piketty’s argument of the rise of the 1%.

Hugh Lauder  13:16
The rise of the 1% certainly has been, in part, because they’ve creamed off the productivity of other workers, but we need to look more closely at the relationship between productivity and income than what Piketty was talking about. Because as far as I can see, and read him, he does assume that most of the rest of the income that people get is a reflection of their productivity. In other words, he becomes quite orthodox once he’s had to look at the 1% in terms of his account of wage determination, and I don’t think that’s right. You only have to look at feminist critiques of human capital theory – and I’m thinking in particular now of the work of Antonia Kupfer in Dresden – and you see that there are a whole range of jobs for which it’s very difficult to determine productivity. It’s not only super managers, as Piketty would say, but it’s care workers. How do we measure their productivity? Why is it that women who can be very skilled at care work get such low wages? There’s a whole range of different questions that can be asked about this relationship between productivity and income. And the idea that productivity simply determines income is taken as a truism in orthodox economics. But I don’t think we can take it as such anymore.

Will Brehm  14:48
So let’s turn to the way in which human capital theory has been studied empirically. What sort of critiques do you see in the way in which it’s been studied?

Hugh Lauder  14:59
Well the way it’s been studied empirically – I’ll give you a clear example since you raised the idea of 30 years as a future timeline for prediction. There’s work by two leading economists, Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, and Hanushek and Woessmann have published a series of papers for the World Bank, the OECD, where they look at the quality of PISA data (this is international test data for different countries). And on that basis, they then predict that in the future if countries can raise their education standards and their educational achievement so this will increase GDP in 20 or 30 years by X amount. And that has become kind of a standard way of analyzing the returns to education in terms of human capital theory. But I don’t need to tell you this, you will know it and so will all your listeners, that that kind of assumption simply doesn’t take into account the real world. We know, for example – and this is often an example I use – that when you compare Korea in the 1950s and Ireland in the 1950s, what you see as two countries with large numbers of relatively unemployed graduates. Both countries then began to take off, but if you look at the path of Korea where much of the takeoff was state led, and is still highly state influenced, what you see is a totally different kind of success story to the story of Ireland, which of course collapsed in 2008. So different trajectories for countries based on different ways of developing them produce different results. So what Hanushek and Woessmann don’t really do is take into account strategy, institutions, all the things that actually make a difference to whether countries and individuals in them do well or not.

Will Brehm  17:16
One of the critiques you you put forward is that human capital theory or the scholars who are using human capital theory often employ methodological individualism. And we hear this quite a bit also in other education research, and I just would like to ask, what does that actually mean?

Hugh Lauder  17:37
Sure. Basically, the assumption of methodological individualism (which is an ugly term, I know), the basic assumption is that the only thing that exists in society are individuals, and therefore it is to the individuals that we look to explain educational outcomes, to explain income, to explain the key features of social life and economic life.

Will Brehm  18:06
And so it neglects things like history, and perhaps the privilege that one could get from his or her parents rather than just their individual unique ability to learn.

Hugh Lauder  18:22
Yes, absolutely, that’s correct. So it neglects history. It neglects the structures which govern our societies such as class, patriarchy, racism. They don’t enter the story at all. And at the same time it neglects institutions, specifically institutions of education, for example; institutions that steer an economy. All that is simply discounted in this kind of explanation, which focuses on individuals.

Will Brehm  18:58
So if we were to talk about alternatives to human capital theory, how would you describe the link between education, productivity and income?

Hugh Lauder  19:08
Okay, well, first of all, these are now very, very complex connections. They’re not at all simple in the way that the original theory assumed. So we need to think about this very, very differently indeed. Let me just come back to the issue of structures and institutions. When you look at, for example, skill bias theory, it says that we understand that in the 20th century, technology was skill biased – that actually what happened was that as technology developed, so the demand for skills increased. But when you look at the history, it can be read completely differently. And it can be read like this, it can be read: Well, actually, the basis of 20th century industry was Fordism, the idea that people could put a nut on a bolt on a production line and out would roll many cars, many televisions. All the consumer goods that we now take for granted. These people were not up-skilled, they were de-skilled, because originally the people that made the cars were craftspeople. So that’s where you have what they call “skill replacing”, where the technology replaces the skill, doesn’t enhance or demand an increased skill. So then you say, “Well, where did the skill bias, the skill enhancement and demand for it, come from?” And actually, it came from the large numbers of white-collar workers you needed to run a large corporation like it. So these are the people that did the marketing, these are the people that did the accounts, these are the people that did all the other finance work and the planning.

But in order to understand how those corporations grew, you also then have to go to a much wider political economy. You have to go to a political economy which talks about the structures of the labor market – and here we’re looking at trade unions as well as employers. And back in the 50s, for example, and the 60s, trade unions were very strong, and they could increase their wages so that their workers could then buy the cars that were rolling off these production lines. Now, you’ll see for a moment there that the story I’m telling is a very much more complicated story than the one that skill bias theorists assume. Now, they assume that because in the past, we have had skill bias theories, so we will in the future. But the political economy around skill and skill development has now changed dramatically, and we need to understand it in terms of globalization, not in terms of Keynesianism and the idea that you could get some kind of agreement between trade unions, employers and the state, because now trade unions are much weaker, for example. They’ve been weakened through neoliberalism.

So you need to tell a completely different story. And you tell a story now about globalization and the demand for skilled workers can occur anywhere; it doesn’t have to be in any particular country. Multinational companies can simply say, “Okay, these skilled workers we want, they’re cheaper in Shanghai than they are in London. We’ll shift the demand to Shanghai.”  So you can see that we’re living in a very, very different kind of world in which the sorts of prediction that human capital theorists made, or assumed they could make, simply no longer exist in that particular way. So we need a different kind of theory. But – and here’s the big but – the world we’re about to enter is going to be even more radically different from the one I’ve just described.

Will Brehm  23:16
How so?

Hugh Lauder  23:16
Well, robots.  People make a lot of robots. And I used to be very skeptical about this. But I’ve just been talking to very senior infocom officials in multinational companies, and they tell me they’re scared of the consequences. And if they’re telling me that, then I’m really beginning to sit up and look at the other studies which suggests that robots can take many of the jobs that skilled workers used to take. We are moving, I think, into an era in which jobs and income will become increasingly uncertain for many, including many graduates. And that requires us to rethink the entire relationship between education and the labor market, because the labor market is so radically changing.

Will Brehm  24:12
Right. It’s fragmented and global, and you see further changes in the future.

Hugh Lauder  24:17
Absolutely. And they’re going to cause policymakers huge problems, which I think they’re reluctant to really start thinking about and confronting.

Will Brehm  24:28
Before we we turn to, “What then of education?”, you use this term, “the global auction for jobs”. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Hugh Lauder  24:38
Yes. So this is a book that Phil Brown, and I wrote with David Ashton back in 2011, which has kind of taken off a bit, and it’s taken off because up until then, the assumption was that technology would always lead to an increase in demand for skilled workers, and particularly for graduate workers. The research we did was on the skill strategies of multinational companies. And they told us a very, very different story. And I’ll give you an example of that, and it goes like this: The first interview that we did was with a human resources, very senior executive for a German engineering company in Germany. So the interview was in Germany; multinational company, though. And I said to him, because I have still had the human capital thinking cap on, as it were. I said to him, “Do you have a shortage of engineers?” And he said, “No”. And I said, “Do you get them from Germany?” And he goes, “No”. So I said, “Do you get them from England?” And he goes, “No”. And I said, “Do you get them from America?” And he said, “No”. Now you can see how my mindset was. I was thinking, Germany, Britain, America, right?

Will Brehm  25:58
Right, the place where engineers you thought were being produced.

Hugh Lauder  26:01
Exactly. And I said, frustrated, “Okay, where do you get them from?”  He says, “We get them from China, we get them from India, we get them from Russia, especially if they’re computer engineers and mathematicians. And we get them from Bulgaria, because in the Soviet bloc, this was designated as the leading place for computer analysis and development.” And in that moment, our eyes opened to a whole new world that this guy in two sentences had given us. And that meant that we had to then get on airplanes, and go and interview executives of multinational companies from around the world to see what was going on. And two things were going on: First of all, because they are in such an intense competition, they’re always seeking to drive down costs, and brainpower they want to make as cheap as possible. So “cut price brainpower” we call it. Now you get that because you can get engineers, for example, in China and in India, for a fraction of the price you can get them in the West. So what you see then is the offshoring of jobs, or the movement of jobs, from particular countries like the United States and the United Kingdom to East Asia.

But at the same time, we picked up something else that was going on. And that was this notion of digital Taylorism, the idea that you can take skilled work that graduates used to do and you can break it down into discrete tasks, standardize it, routinize it and then put it into algorithms that you can ship across the world so that work can be done anywhere. So these are the two key features of the global auction. Now, there is one exception to this and that is at the same time as we’re producing all these graduates, highly skilled workers from around the world so then in comes a particular ideology which suggests that it’s only the very few of those graduates who are really talented. And so now on every bookshelf of every HR executive office that we went to, was this War for Talent book. And this is about how you recruit the most talented in competition with your other corporates. So this is the one exception: there are a few people who are now designated as talented. Now, there’s a major debate as to what’s really going on there and whether these people really are talented, or whether it’s just executives or corporations wanting to see a kind of great reflection of themselves in the younger new recruits coming into their company. Because, of course, these people designated as talented earn much more money than everyone else. So that’s the global auction in a nutshell. And that began to open up two debates related. The first was, “No, we don’t live in a knowledge economy. No, if you’re a graduate, you’re not going to enter a world where you’ll be highly rewarded necessarily, where you’ll have status, creativity and autonomy. Quite the opposite might happen, that you’ll be entering routinized work.” And alongside that, and following from that, is the idea that actually knowledge work itself is now being stratified. So that you’ll get an elite which is the talented, you might get another group beneath them that do their bidding, and then you’ll get these routinized workers. So that was why the book cause something of a stir, because we were arguing, for the first time I think, that the idea of the knowledge economy and of human capital and skill bias theory really didn’t work in the way that had been assumed.

Will Brehm  30:01
So what then of education? How do we make sense of education in this this world that you are painting for us here?

Hugh Lauder  30:09
Okay, this is, I think, a really important question. Because if you were to just think that we’re talking about today and tomorrow, then there could be a critique which comes in, especially from the right wing, which is: “Oh well, we’re just educating too many people to too high a level.”  And in itself, that is problematic, because what else are graduates going to do when in countries like the United States and Britain, we no longer have the forms of industrialization where people could do high skilled, high paid work that, for example, still obtains in parts of Germany. So that’s one problem, but there’s a much bigger problem on the horizon. And I kind of signaled it when I talked about the robots. Because if so many of the skilled jobs that we have are going to be done by robots, then what’s going to happen to graduates? What’s going to happen to those who are educated? And I think the answer to that is something like this: We are going to have to give people a basic wage, a universal basic wage. Because the insecurities in the labor market will be so great that many will simply not survive unless they get a universal basic wage. Now, that universal basic wage will enable people to do a number of different things. It will enable them to retrain, to re-skill, for which they will need learning accounts so that they can draw on an account to upscale where they see a need. It will enable them to innovate and to develop different ways of interacting with this world. And the universal basic income will expand the labor market from beyond the confines of a market to work which is seen as important and contributing to society. And of course, care workers would be a clear example of that. So, that’s the labor market part of it in a nutshell. Then what about education? Well, if we’re thinking about that world, and you reflect on that for a moment, the uncertainties of that world, then clearly we need people to be as best educated as we possibly can make them. We need people who are reflective, alert, resilient in order to be able to make the best of the opportunities they have. So education becomes more important in these terms than in the past.

Will Brehm  32:41
Well Hugh Lauder, thank you very much for joining FreshEd.

Hugh Lauder  32:44
It was a delight. I hope it was of some value to you.

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How did vouchers and charter schools become key elements in the education reform agenda in the United States?

My guest today, Professor of Education Policy at the University of Illinois, Chris Lubienski, speaks about the rise of policy orchestration among a network of private and non-profit actors and what this means for democratic decision making.

His research shows how Philanthropic Foundations, such as the Gates and Walton Family Foundations, and think tanks, such as the Brookings Institute and RAND corporation, have come to promote a common agenda that has helped propel vouchers and charters into the national spotlight.

Professor Lubienski explores the changing structures of educational policy making in the United States, and argues that the contracting out of policy making to actors such as Gates, Brookings, and RAND has resulted in the privatization of public policy making.

You can follow Prof. Lubienski on twitter: @Club_edu and read his article on policy orchestration.

Citation: Lubienski, Chris, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 2, podcast audio, July 20, 2016. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/chrislubienski/

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