Thinking like an Economist
Thinking like an Economist
Today we rethink Technical and Vocational Education and Training. Instead of looking at it from a human capital approach, my guest, Leesa Wheelahan, looks at it from a productive capabilities perspective.
Together with Gavin Moodie and Eric Lavigne, Leesa Wheelahan has recently co-written a new report for Education International entitled Technical and vocational education and training as a framework for social justice: Analysis and evidence from World Case Studies.
Leesa Wheelahan is Professor and William G. Davis chair in Community College Leadership at the Ontario Institute for Education Studies at the University of Toronto.
Citation: Wheelahan, Leesa, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 174, podcast audio, September 30, 2019. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/wheelahan/
Will Brehm 1:54
Leesa Wheelahan, welcome to FreshEd.
Leesa Wheelahan 1:56
Will Brehm 1:57
So, you have recently put out a new publication, and you begin by talking a lot about the limitations of human capital theory. In your mind, what are those limitations?
Leesa Wheelahan 2:09
There are many limitations to human capital theory. Human capital theory has been the orthodoxy underpinning education from at least the 1980s, where the point and purpose of education was narrowed from what it was – which was preparing people to be citizens in their communities and in society – to producing the labor needed for the workforce. So, education was subordinated to macroeconomic reforms and needs. And in that process, we lost a lot. There is a conception in human capital theory that if you invest in specific education that will lead to specific skills, you will get greater productivity and higher GDP. That just doesn’t work. I mean, even in its own terms, human capital theory doesn’t work. So even if we just look at it within its own parameters, we can see that it doesn’t work in its own terms. For example, if we have a look at what happens when people do qualifications at college or university and then go and get jobs, most people don’t work in the jobs associated with their qualifications; most people work in a different field. You get a tight match between jobs and qualifications in regulated fields.
Will Brehm 3:31
Leesa Wheelahan 3:32
Nursing, law, engineering, where you can’t work in those fields unless you’ve got that qualification.
Will Brehm 3:38
But if I did a degree in international relations, I would end up in all sorts of professions.
Leesa Wheelahan 3:44
Exactly. Exactly. And so, one of the problems that we have, particularly in the college sector, which is where our report is focused. Our report is focused on TVET – technical and vocational education and training – and that takes different forms in different countries. And in Canada, that means the college sector. In Australia, that means technical and further education. In the US, it means the community college sector. Now in some countries, it can include senior school, like in Germany and in many of the northern European countries. And in other countries, it’s post-school. And in some countries, it’s both. So, for TVET, human capital theory is a particular problem, because the point and purpose of TVET, as it’s conceived in policy, is to prepare people for specific jobs.
Will Brehm 4:36
Right, so, it would actually be very much connected to human capital theory.
Leesa Wheelahan 4:39
It’s driven by human capital theory. And so the whole idea is – and this particularly underpins competency based training, which is the model of curriculum in many countries in the world, which is particularly problematic, because the whole idea is with competency based training – what we’ll do is we’ll look at a job or break it down into its unit tasks, and we’ll teach people how to do those things. Very narrow conception of what education should be.
Will Brehm 5:07
I always wonder what happens in the future when there’s different market, like labor markets and different jobs that people need to do.
Leesa Wheelahan 5:14
Oh, exactly, right. I mean, and it’s even more stupid, because people don’t actually end up working those jobs.
Will Brehm 5:23
Even in TVET?
Leesa Wheelahan 5:24
Even in TVET. Particularly in TVET. So, in Australia and Canada, which are the two countries where I personally have looked at the data. In Australia, only 33% of graduates from vocational education and training work in the jobs associated with their qualification. 33%.
Will Brehm 5:44
Oh, my gosh.
Leesa Wheelahan 5:45
And this is a tightly defined and scripted competency-based training model and curriculum that underpins that sector.
Will Brehm 5:53
Wow, that’s actually really surprising. I feel actually quite ignorant here about that.
Leesa Wheelahan 5:58
People are usually a bit shocked by that. And in Canada, it’s not quite as bad I think, but it’s still more than half don’t end up working in jobs associated with their qualification.
Will Brehm 6:08
And why is that?
Leesa Wheelahan 6:10
And the reason that’s the case is because what happens is, in countries like Australia, England, Canada, the US, in the anglophone liberal market economies, what happens is that the employers chuck everyone in the sieve as part of the selection process. They give the sieve a good shake, and anyone who doesn’t have a degree falls through, and the only people who are left are people with degrees. And so, what employers do, is they use the level of the qualification as a proxy for the kinds of knowledge and skills and attributes that they want. Now, they might say, “Okay, we’ll have someone who’s got maths as part of their degree, but it doesn’t have to be a specific degree”, you know, or we might want someone who’s got an insight into science or something like that, but doesn’t have to be something specific. So, they use the level of the qualification as the proxy.
Will Brehm 7:09
Not the skills you learn within that degree.
Leesa Wheelahan 7:12
That’s right. And so that’s the false premise of human capital theory: the idea that you invest in specific skills in order to advance your position in the labor market. The reality is people don’t end up working those jobs.
Will Brehm 7:30
When human capital theory was being popularized, let’s say in the ’60s and ’70s, there was a counter argument, even at that time. I think it’s called “signaling theory”, is that right? It is more about the degree signals to the employer, just what you were saying. And so now, here we are 40, 50 years later, this is now what we’re realizing again.
Leesa Wheelahan 7:58
Absolutely. And so the whole problem of skills mismatches is not actually the fault of education. Education, particularly vocational education gets demonized for not producing the right kind of skills, or people with the right kind of skills. And in actual fact, the reason why we have skills mismatches is because of the way in which the labor market uses people with qualifications, and the way in which employers select people with qualifications. And so, the problems about skills mismatches are actually being driven by the labor market and less so by education. And that’s a fundamental issue that we’ve got to get right for people to understand. Otherwise, what happens is we get a lot of pressure, particularly in TVET, to try and screw qualifications even more tightly to the labor market, even more tightly to specific jobs. And our argument is that if you do that, if you screw things down more tightly, you’re actually going to cut off students’ options rather than increase them. You’re going to make it harder for students to get jobs outside of that area, when they can’t get jobs in that area anyway. So, that’s why we’re arguing that we need a broader conception of qualifications and the role and purpose of education.
Will Brehm 9:21
So, what would that broader conception look like in your opinion?
Leesa Wheelahan 9:24
So, we think that the broader conception of education needs to actually start with: What kind of person are we trying to produce in society? And in TVET, the general assumption is that you’re producing a worker who is going to be supervised by someone else, someone who doesn’t necessarily have the level of independence and agency in your own work. We think that’s a deeply flawed conception of what a human being is. And so what we argue is that we need a broader conception of education to reflect the fact that the purpose of education is to produce someone who can live a life they have reason to value, who can support their families and communities, who can get jobs where they can contribute to the development of their profession and occupation, who can be creative at work. And that’s why we’ve used the “capabilities approach” as an alternative conceptual framing to human capital series.
Will Brehm 10:31
And so, what does that look like – human capabilities – in the TVET world that you’re looking at?
Leesa Wheelahan 10:35
We’ve actually used the word “productive capabilities” to try and actually define and distinguish what we mean by capabilities. So, by productive capabilities, we mean a form of TVET that allows people to develop the knowledge, skills and attributes they need to live a life they have reason to value, where the emphasis is on human flourishing. Obviously, one’s capacity to get a job is a key and intrinsic part of that because most people spend most of their time actually at work. And so that’s a key part. But the emphasis in human capital theory is on human flourishing. And the whole notion of the capability approach is underpinned by social justice because it’s the idea that people should have the same sorts of opportunities to make choices about how they will live. And so, it’s all about equality of opportunity and outcome, not equality of resources. That’s a key and important difference: it’s about equality of opportunity. And the realization of opportunities, the capacity to make choices, rests upon social, cultural, economic and technological resources. So, you can’t conceive of capabilities without saying, “What are the social arrangements that people can use to make choices about how they want to live their lives?”
Will Brehm 12:08
So, it would have to be contextualized.
Leesa Wheelahan 12:11
Yes, absolutely. It has to be contextualized, so it’s not just about the individual. It’s about the individual in their community and in their society. And that’s why TVET institutions and TVET teachers matter so much. Because what we think is that public TVET institutions are the key local actors in their communities that help people to be able to develop the knowledge and skills that they need to live a life they want to lead in their community and to contribute to their community. And we think that TVET institutions have to be resourced to do this, and they have to be trusted to do this. So historically, what we’ve had with TVET institutions is they’re not trusted, apart from some systems in northern Europe which are a bit different. They have their own issues, but it’s not so much of a problem. But historically, TVET institutions are not trusted.
Will Brehm 13:08
Leesa Wheelahan 13:10
It comes from human capital theory again, where this notion that public institutions are subject to produce and capture where the people who work there will work in their own interests and not the interest of their customers.
Will Brehm 13:25
So, it’s all about self-interest: we’re rational humans and our self-interests make us this rational human.
Leesa Wheelahan 13:32
That is right. And, that we will only act in our own interest …
Will Brehm 13:37
which is defined by an economic sort of more money, more higher wage, or whatever it is.
Leesa Wheelahan 13:41
That’s right. And so, the policy in the ’80s and subsequently to that, has been that public TVET institutions have to be disciplined by the market. And the point of all this is to make them more responsible, entrepreneurial, more hungry so that they’ll respond to customers’ demands. And so what that’s led to in many systems, and particularly one case that I know the most about which is Australia – because I’m from Australia, but also we did a case study on Australia – is that, when you have a market-driven approach to TVET, what’s happened in Australia is that public policy has conceived of TAFE, the public institution of TVET in that country (Technical and Further Education) as just one provider in a market, interchangeable with other providers, and that that’s actually what makes it more competitive. Well, in actual fact, it’s taken TAFE to the brink, and unless there’s serious reinvestment in TAFE, we have the danger that we’ll end up with a residual system, a residual public system that produces “just-in-time” training just for now, rather than preparing people for their careers and for their lives. And so, what we’re arguing is that public institutions, TVET institutions, rather than being mistrusted, need to be highly trusted. And they need to be trusted as the local actors where they work with their communities.
Will Brehm 15:14
So how does that happen? If that market fundamentalism, I don’t think is disappearing. I don’t think Scott Morrison in Australia is going to be thinking outside of market fundamentalism, outside of human capital theory, even if he might not use those words.
Leesa Wheelahan 15:33
No, that’s right. And the problem that we’ve got in Australia is that … So, Scott Morrison is a conservative; he heads the conservative government. The problem that we’ve got in Australia is that the actual policy framework that’s gutted TAFE was first developed by the Labor Party.
Will Brehm 15:51
Oh my gosh. When did that happen?
Leesa Wheelahan 15:53
In 2008. What happened was that Gillard was the Labor prime minister, and their whole policy or education policy, was underpinned by human capital theory. Their policy on early childhood education – three-year olds, and four-year olds – in the first paragraph it talks about investing in human capital.
Will Brehm 16:19
So, what’s a human capital skill for a three-year-old? Coloring inside the lines?
Leesa Wheelahan 16:24
Well, God knows. It was just so absurd, really. And just so reductive. So, we had a federal Labor government, but the way that it works in Australia is that it’s a policy partnership between the state and the federal governments. And so, it was the Victorian Labor government that first introduced the most marketized policies, and they lead the way. Now the difference between conservatives and Labor is that the conservatives think that the public institution is by definition a problem because it believes in private enterprise; it believes in competition. And so, it doesn’t like public institutions. In contrast, the Labor Party doesn’t hate TAFE, doesn’t hate public institution, but it wanted it to behave like a private provider and use the discipline of the market. Now, what happened in all the states where Labor was in government, they got thrown out of government, as happens, and conservative governments got elected, and they took these policies to their logical conclusion. And so, we ended up in Victoria, where TAFE went from having 70 or 80% of publicly funded education to 33% at its nadir. It’s now above 40%, because the new Labor government is trying to reinvest in it, and Labor recognized that its policy was fundamentally flawed and has taken TAFE to the brink. And it has committed, in many states, to ensure that 70% of public funding goes to TAFEs. So, there is some sign that the market orthodoxy is being weakened and undermined, but it’s still pretty strong.
Will Brehm 18:12
And, has a similar phenomenon happened in other countries, where the marketization or the privatization of TVET is occurring?
Leesa Wheelahan 18:22
Yes. So, if we have a look at England, which is one of our other case studies, what you’ll see is that there has been massive cuts in funding over years, as you know. So, an absolute collapse in adult learning, as a result of funding policies in colleges there. It’s happening in many of the anglophone systems.
Will Brehm 18:49
When you think about this productive capabilities, as you’re calling it, it’s a very complex understanding of what education is. And so, I would imagine then translating that into public policy is actually quite hard. With human capital, it’s very very simple. It’s this GDP per capita, and it becomes what skills to match with the labor force. And it becomes a very simple policy solution. And I think that’s probably one of the reasons human capital has become so dominant worldwide. So, are there any examples of where TVET policy is actually, more or less embodying some of these more complex notions of productive capabilities?
Leesa Wheelahan 19:37
So, the problem for researchers is always how to translate research into policy. And that problem exists with this whole conceptual framework. But I think that we’re getting there on this, and I think that the report that we’ve done for Education International is a step forward. In that report, we’ve focused on eight case studies, and we tried to take one lesson from each case study about what TVET should be like, or what TVET needs, to put together a understandable and comprehensible policy framework. But for me, the main thing is to say, “You can’t do this unless you have strong public TVET institutions.” So that’s how I translate it into policy: is to talk about the role of the public institution and to talk about the role that public institutions play in local, regional, economic, social and cultural development. There’s a lot of work that public TVET institutions have always done that is invisible, and unless you’ve worked in one, you don’t know that it happens. For example, I don’t know a single director of a public TVET institution who’s not on their local regional economic board. Or a single college where the senior management are not involved in the local community infrastructure. Or where the teachers aren’t involved with their local communities, particularly the most disadvantaged communities. So, this work happens, but it’s not well understood.
Will Brehm 21:14
And it happens more so than higher education generally, like a university system?
Leesa Wheelahan 21:20
Well, there is, of course, overlap between what public colleges do and what universities do, but there is a big difference. And one thing that we do have to try and do is articulate a mission for colleges that is different to what schools do and different to what universities do. So, one of the problems for TVET has been that it’s always been defined residually as being what universities don’t do and what schools don’t do, but we argue there’s stuff that they can do that universities and schools can’t do. And one of those is that universities tend not to be as involved in local industries as the college. The colleges have a much closer engagement with work in the areas. Universities tend to work at a higher level of abstraction and tend to have more of a national focus. Although you do have many universities, of course, which have a regional focus. And universities do have close relations with work in areas where they teach regulative classes, like nursing, for example. But the colleges do that to a much greater extent. And what we think is that the colleges not only have a role in helping people develop the knowledge and skills they need for their lives and for work, but they have a role in transforming work, which we don’t think universities can do quite so well, because they’re closely involved. So for example, just to give you an illustration, if we think about the teacher of the electrical trades apprentices, what they should be supported to do – and develop the qualification so they know how to do it – is to take the insights from engineering. And to think about how should that change the work of electrical apprentices in the next five years or in the next 10 years. And what should be the changes for curriculum as a result? Or another example would be aged care. What are the insights that research is producing on Alzheimer’s? And how should the work of aged care workers change as a result of this new research? Now, the people who are doing the research on Alzheimer’s don’t have an intimate understanding of what aged care workers do on a daily basis. The teachers in the college do. So, the teachers in the colleges should be the ones who are thinking about, “Well here’s what we now know that we didn’t know before. So, what does that mean for the way aged care workers do their work every day?”
Will Brehm 23:53
It’s very unbelievably practical, isn’t it?
Leesa Wheelahan 23:55
Will Brehm 23:57
I’ve been in aged care facilities. You see so many people doing so many things to take care of this aging population that many countries are now experiencing. So, to me, that’s an example that makes so much sense. And that is not a residual issue for TVET. This is something they can …
Leesa Wheelahan 24:18
Will Brehm 24:18
It’s core. Exactly.
Leesa Wheelahan 24:23
So, this is a form of applied research, but it’s not “big R” research, but it’s the form of applied research that can drive innovation.
Will Brehm 24:30
Right, and have huge impact.
Leesa Wheelahan 24:32
Yes, absolutely. And so, we think in every area where TVET is working, that teachers are the ones who have a better understanding of what’s happening in workplaces. In part, because they come from those workplaces. So TVET teachers are usually people who’ve got experience working in the industry. So, they’re industry experts as well as expert teachers, so they have this dual professional identity. And because they come from that industry, they have good understanding what happens. But they don’t get the time or the resources that they need to undertake this role as effectively as they might. So, what we think in terms of articulating a mission for the colleges is that they can develop, codify and institutionalize knowledge about the nature of work, and how work should change in a way that universities can’t do. And that they can be part of a process of renewal of work, and meaningful work. And so, this is what we’re trying to do with this report: is to articulate the kinds of things that colleges can and should be funded and supported to do.
Will Brehm 25:47
It seems like it’s one step in many more to come in how to translate this conceptual framework into contextualized policy from different countries and different regions within countries, I would imagine.
Leesa Wheelahan 26:02
That’s right. And so, the importance of TVET institutions as being a local actor, as having agency as an institution, about understanding what is it that their community needs, working in partnership with their communities. Now TVET institutions already do that, but what we’re talking about is recognizing that role, institutionalizing that role, and trusting them to be able to do that. At the moment in many countries, colleges do that despite the policy frameworks, and despite the funding mechanisms. So, we’re saying, in contrast, that should be explicitly funded, explicitly recognized. And furthermore, that TVET’s role in innovation, and in transforming work should also be recognized.
Will Brehm 26:51
Well, Leesa Wheelahan, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It really was a pleasure talking today.
Leesa Wheelahan 26:56
A pleasure. Thank you.