The Conscience of a Progressive


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.

Will Brehm 1:54
Leesa Wheelahan, welcome to FreshEd.

Leesa Wheelahan 1:56
Thank you.

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
Such as?

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
Why not?

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
It’s core.

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.

Coming soon!
Coming soon!

How did School Based Management become an approach to educational governance found across the world? Where did it come from and what institutions advanced the idea globally?

Today I speak with Brent Edwards, an Associate Professor of Theory and Methodology in the Study of Education at the University of Hawaii. He has spent over a decade researching the phenomenon of School Based Management. In his search for democratic alternatives to dominant education models, he has shown in various publications how market fundamentalism is embedded inside the very idea of School Based Management.

Citation: Edwards, Brent, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 165, podcast audio, July 29, 2019.

Transcript, Translation, and Resources:

Read more

The World Bank hasn’t always made loans to education. Post-World War II, the Bank focused mainly on infrastructure. Even when it did start lending to education in the 1960s, it used the idea of manpower planning, the process of estimating the number of people with specific skills required for completing a project. Only in the 1970s did the World Bank begin to think of education in terms of rates of return: the cost-benefit calculation that uses expected future earning from one’s educational attainment.

The introduction of rates of return inside the World Bank was no easy process. The internal fights by larger-than-life personalities were the stuff legends are made from. Yet, these disputes often go unnoticed, hidden behind glossy reports and confidence.

Today Stephen Heyneman takes us back in time when he introduced rates of return to the World Bank. He discusses how he used them to his advantage and how he ultimately lost his job because of them.

Stephen Heyneman is Professor Emeritus of international education policy at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. He served the World Bank for 22 years between 1976 and 1998.

Citation: Heyneman, Stephen, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 155, podcast audio, May 20, 2019.

Transcript, Translation, and Resources:

Read more

American students are in debt. Some forty-four million Americans collectively hold over $1.4 trillion worth of debt. Those numbers have increased since the Global Financial Crisis from 10 years ago.

Today I speak with Ben Miller, a senior director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress. Ben specializes in higher-education accountability, affordability, and financial aid, as well as for-profit colleges. His most recent op-ed – “The Student Debt Problem is Worse than we Imagined” – appeared in the New York Times in August.

Citation: Miller, Ben, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 126, podcast audio, September 17, 2018.

Transcript, Translation, and Resources:

Read more

What are Americans’ views of higher education?

The common story is that people see higher education as an investment in the future of an individual. More education from the best university will result in high salaries in the future. In this story, the public doesn’t appear. It’s all about the private good of higher education.

But what if this story is wrong? Or at least biased by the very questions being asked? Instead of asking if higher education is an investment in one’s future job prospects, what if we asked about higher education’s public value?

Well, my guests today did just that.

Noah Drezner and Oren Pizmony-Levy, together with Aaron Pallas, conducted a nationally representative survey in America on views of higher education. Their findings tell a new and powerful story.

Noah Drezner is an Associate Professor of Higher Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, where Oren Pizmony-Levy is an Assistant Professor of International and Comparative Education.

Citation: Drezner, Noah D. & Pizmony-Levy, Oren, interview with WillBrehm, FreshEd, 124, podcast audio, August 19, 2018.

Transcript, translation, and resources:

Read more


Today we look at educational privatization in Japan. My guest is the renowned Marxist scholar Makoto Itoh. In our two-part conversation, Professor Itoh argues that both the capitalist market and Soviet system have not produced democratic equality. In both systems, schools have been used to sort people by class.


Makoto Itoh teaches at Kokugakuin University and is professor emeritus of the University of Tokyo. His newest book, written in Japanese, is A guide to Capitalist Economy, which was published in February.

Citation: Itoh, Makoto, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 112, podcast audio, April 16, 2018.



Will Brehm  1:15
Makoto Itoh, Welcome to FreshEd

Makoto Itoh  1:18
Thank you very much for your invitation.

Will Brehm  1:19
It’s really wonderful to sit down today in Tokyo and discuss, well, probably a whole bunch of things about education and your own life and about Marxism. And it’s a good time because you just told me you published a new book called ‘A Guide to Capitalist Economy’, which is published in Japanese a few months ago. So, congratulations on the book.

Makoto Itoh  1:40
Thank you.

Will Brehm  1:42
So, what I’m interested in speaking about today is your understanding of Marxism -you are an internationally renowned Marxist scholar- and applying it to the field of education. How would we apply Marxist thinking to education? So, you know, I’m not really sure where to begin because Marxism is so big of a body of literature but perhaps we can think about the costs of education. Because the costs seem to be one of the big pieces of capitalism: prices and costs.

Makoto Itoh  2:20
Indeed. Well, when we look at education costs today, it is worrying to see how it became so expensive, especially to learn at university level.  The data in Japan for last year said that in private university, it costs in four years in total, 7.4 million yen. So, you can calculate.

Will Brehm  2:48
So, 7.4 million yen is something like $70,0000 US dollars?

Makoto Itoh  2:57
Right. So, it costs very much in private university. And in case of six-year medical students, in total, it costs 27 million yen, whereas average household income in Japan is 5.3 million.

Will Brehm  3:18
So many people wouldn’t be able to even afford to go to medical school and probably very difficult to go to private university.

Makoto Itoh  3:27
That’s right. It is said that almost educational costs of one child for medical department is almost the same as purchasing a house. So, I am afraid that such expensive educational cost cannot be affordable for all parents. The basic idea for democracy is egalitarian, freedom to run for everybody. But that cost prevents such a basis for social democracy, isn’t it? And although rate of university students among the same generation, as you may know, reached just over one half in 2009.

Will Brehm  4:20
OK, so in 2009, 50% of the same generation went to university?

Makoto Itoh  4:30
Four years university.

Will Brehm  4:32

Makoto Itoh  4:32
Whereas in my youth, it was below 10%. At the year 1954, I became a university student in the next year, but at 1954 it equaled 7.9%. So, less than 10%.

Will Brehm  4:51

Makoto Itoh  4:51
So, the rate of higher education at the university level became more and more broadly shared, whereas it became so expensive nowadays. The rate of increase of students among the same generation became very, very stagnant and became slightly down lower to 49.9%. Less than 50% in 2013.

Will Brehm  5:21
Okay, so it’s the numbers of students enrolling in universities has slowed compared to when you were a student?

Makoto Itoh  5:31
No, no, no, the same generation? The rate of university students became lower in several years.

Will Brehm  5:38
Oh, right. And is this mainly because of the costs?

Makoto Itoh  5:42
I guess so. At least one reason. And this affects in various ways. For one thing, students became so busy to earn money while they are students too. So, that they cannot have enough time to enjoy their college life. And, “I’m sorry, I’m busy to do some advice” is a common phrase for the present students and they became so conscious about the career after graduation because they had to earn money for the sake of parents who paid university costs. And many students nowadays, just like in the United States, depend on student loans. And this newspaper reports, that personal bankruptcy, over 150,000 person a year bankrupted now. And this bankruptcy affects naturally to their parents, and sometimes to grandparents due to joint-signatures.

Will Brehm  6:54
This is the students that go bankrupt because of the loans they’ve taken out and they’re unable to pay them back.

Makoto Itoh  7:03
It’s a tragic situation. So, in many cases, it affects the total society broadly.

Will Brehm  7:11
Why do you think this happens? I mean, is this sort of a natural consequence in capitalists’ systems where fees increase and where you have to take out debt? Debt, as Minsky says is a main feature of capitalism. I mean, should we not be surprised that this is happening? Even if it is tragic?

Makoto Itoh  7:35
Hmm. In my years, when I was a student, tuitions for all state universities seems almost nothing. It was so cheap! So, in student period, student friends are so various in their classes. All a mixture of society. Whereas in the present day, in the University of Tokyo, for example, the other statistics says that over one half of students in the University of Tokyo, you can see over 54.8% of students came from the family type, which belongs just under 10% of top richer families this class.

Will Brehm  8:30
Right, so over half of the students come from the wealthiest families

Makoto Itoh  8:36
9.7% of richest families can only afford.

Will Brehm  8:43
The top 10% send more than 50% of the students.

Makoto Itoh  8:50

Will Brehm  8:50
So, there’s huge inequality in the system.

Makoto Itoh  8:55
The University of Tokyo is a major feeding University Japan to occupy Korea for the future bureaucrat, business circle and many other candidates for the future central.

Will Brehm  9:09
Could you explain that? Because this is actually slightly different than in Western universities, where the University of Tokyo holds this very privileged…

Makoto Itoh  9:17
You probably know Gakureki shakai. Gakureki means career of university period. It is important to remember, and I feel unhappy to talk about that from a Marxian point of view. But the University of Tokyo actually did play a very important institution with some other top universities are important to see who became dominant probability to be declared as a candidate for the leading bureaucrats, leading businesspersons of big businesses and in other many fields. So, those are elite institutions and in order to get into such elitist universities there is certainly severe competition and parents have to be rich to hire private teacher to educate their children.

Will Brehm  10:23
And it’s not just private schooling it’s also tutoring or Juku

Makoto Itoh  10:28
Juku. Many costs extra is necessary.

Will Brehm  10:31
So, over the lifetime of a child you have to be able to spend millions and millions of yen to prepare him or her to get into a university like Todai.

Makoto Itoh  10:41
I read in Piketty’s book that only top 2% is able to send their children to Harvard. Almost a similar phenomenon is seen. To jump from that, I read some material of old Soviet. There was elite educational systems which only allowed to small number of elitist state bureaucrats and party bureaucrats. It was very privileged special course nomenclature education system. So, education system is a “for sale” system to discriminate elitist. In the case of Japan and the United States, or capitalist societies, money can serve as such a discriminatory reproduction of elitist capitalist class.

Will Brehm  11:37
Whereas with the Soviet Union it was…

Makoto Itoh  11:40
It was done by privileged political setting. Which is better? [Laughter]

Will Brehm  11:48
That’s right. I mean is there a better? Because the outcome is similar, right? You sort society in a particular way that gives certain people benefits and not others. It is very far from egalitarianism as you were talking about.

Makoto Itoh  12:02
Right. So, egalitarianism as an idea for both socialism and capitalism. But in reality, they failed for Soviet Union, United States, and Japan.

Will Brehm  12:20
That’s quite a difficult contradiction

Makoto Itoh  12:24
Indeed. An ideal society in common sense under the name of democracy cannot work in reality in the market. Just like a political system in the Soviet Union. We tend to be told that Soviet was a privileged, very undemocratic society. But why can’t we see democratic egalitarian social system on the market?

Will Brehm  12:50
Yeah, they might not -capitalism and democracy are not as intertwined as maybe the common assumption.

Makoto Itoh  13:02
Civil evolution from the age of former British or French Revolution has not been achieved in reality in the system of education. Oxbridge, Harvard, MIT, Boston, and the Ivy Leagues in the United States.

Will Brehm  13:21
When you look at education in Japan, but as you were saying, this phenomenon is in many other parts of the world, particularly in market economies, where inequality is increasing, and education is a way to sort of sort society, does Marxist economics help you understand what is going on?

Makoto Itoh  13:45
So, the real problem is that what is the social ground to argue for democracy? Political democracy is achieved by one vote for one person. One other person can be given one vote for election. It is a political way of expression of democracy. And in my belief, I think that economic life in society is supported by labor or work, and economic democracy should be recognized social contribution for egalitarian peoples endeavor to spend certain time of his life or day time to work for other persons or to support themselves or other persons. In usual a person statistically tells us that around 2000 hours a year is working day. And I think there are about 50 million persons in Japan working, or supporting our economic life, excepting certain number of wage workers like politicians and bureaucrats in certain parts. Just like Adam Smith said, they are unproductive classes that not support economic life -to work for services and producing something for other persons, socially. If we calculate 50 thousands persons 2,000 hours each makes total number of hours, 100 billion.

Will Brehm  15:37
100 billion hours of work every year-

Makoto Itoh  15:40
-supports Japanese society. This is a very clear image to calculate. And it is my fundamental view of society, that our economic life is supported by that number of hours together. Therefore, if we can conceive that each hour is usually estimated equally, each other homogeneous, this is called by Marx abstract human labor, which is the basis for any concrete useful labor. Marx distinguishes labor in that sense and abstract human labor is shared for different kinds of useful concrete labor. So, this forms division of labor in society. If we can recognize that any person even highly educated doctor and taxi driver is as the same person, same human being, which have concepts in their mind, and utilize their internal nature to act and work according to the their conception and execution is the combination to form human ability to work in any places, utilizing language in common and thinking, sharing certain ideas, and can do what they intend to do unlike any other animals who may also work but human labor is different from other animals’ metabolic functions with great nature. It is different from we share ideas, conceptions, and work according to that conception, this is human work. So, if we recognize each other, every working hour is homogeneous, despite of educational cost difference -it is other aspects to be considered- but if we recognize it in such a way, economic democracy should be based upon homogeneity of social contribution of every person’s work labor.

Will Brehm  18:07
So, for instance, like you said, the taxi drivers one hour of work would be equivalent to the doctor’s one hour of work, or the Prime Minister’s one hour of work?

Makoto Itoh  18:18
This is the basic idea.

Will Brehm  18:20
But even the non-wage labor would be valued the same way, right.

Makoto Itoh  18:25

Will Brehm  18:26
So, the stay-at-home mother or father would be valued for one hour of childcare.

Makoto Itoh  18:32
And in order to think in such a way we have to distinct Marxists treatment of skilled labor issue. Even Marx said, skilled labor may be conceived as doing five times of labor in one hour unlike the unskilled labor. I think it is not democratic way of conceptualizing abstract human labor. I would like to revise that on Marx and almost all the Marxian economists still follow Ricardo -Marx traditions to conceive intensified labor by certain skilled work complex laborer. It is not a democratic way to think.

Will Brehm  19:19
No. You don’t want to have different values placed on different types of labor, skilled or unskilled, they all should be equal. That is the egalitarian way.

Makoto Itoh  19:30
Yeah. 100 billion is the same in quality.

Will Brehm  19:36
Yeah. And what I wonder is..

Makoto Itoh  19:37
It is interesting to think in such a way.

Will Brehm  19:40
Yeah, a hundred billion hours of work!

Makoto Itoh  19:43
And if we conceive certain cases nowadays, say Basic Income idea, for example, and some cases of local currency, time data, they treat labor contribution as the same contribution among community. It has a certain, in my belief, it is through communal ways of understanding each other let us recognize our time as a basis of community. It is a good way to think.

Will Brehm  20:18
It seems like it would also sort of naturally lead to people devoting less time in wage labor, because 100 billion hours of labor per year, I would imagine that’s not completely -or you don’t need 100 billion hours to produce the GDP of Japan.

Makoto Itoh  20:44
If we include certain non-market labor, it might be 1.5 times of that size. We don’t care about that. But the important thing is to recognize egalitarian democratic homogeneity in contributing labor activities, either market or no market, it is an important thing.

Will Brehm  21:08
It seems as if the education system, as we were talking about earlier, the sorting that goes on, would not allow for such an egalitarian system as you were saying.

Makoto Itoh  21:23
Yea. It is because privatization of education attributes educational costs to each family or each individual. Therefore, the person who needs higher education, such as medical doctor, has to pay back, as Becker’s human capital theory says as an investment. It is a type of thinking which seems very natural when we live in the individualistic, private, market economy. Whereas in old period, the educational system could be more public, communal, common goods, as you suggest here. And any children, who may come from the poorer family, can receive that education free. If educational system is supported by common funds, in that case, we do not care about educational costs being paid back later by their higher wages, we can still reproduce necessary types of educated, trained persons for each necessary works.

Will Brehm  22:40
To think beyond human capital theory. To not view education as a future rate of return on my individual wage, but rather, as you’re saying, see it more communally. To me, it sounds like that will take a huge shift in imagination of everyday people. Because, I think the person who’s spending 7.4 million yen to go to university is expecting that he or she will get a return on investment that is quite high.

Makoto Itoh  23:20
And the student loan expect that too. That is a privatization of education for individual. But actually, communist economy in Soviet system, higher education, while also very cheap or free to produce most numerous number of higher educated technicians who are produced in Soviet. And in such an educational system, the public way: In that case, why should be pay higher wages to that doctor or to that engineer? We do not need to paying system such a discriminatory way. So probably in Soviet grading of labor was done, but this grading could be much reduced gaps and connected to educational costs, you see. So that sort of system is conceivable. If educational costs can be socialized, educational systems could be more democratic and probably social mobility could be elevated much more. As a result, it might be more activated society and mobility across various families to contribute in suitable places or according to the children’s aspirations could be achieved.

Will Brehm  24:56
Are you hopeful that in the future we will see a transition in society away from this privatization of education that has expanded exponentially under neoliberalism? Or are you hopeful that we will actually shift -in Japan, and in America, and in other places around the world- away from that private notion and value of education.

Makoto Itoh  25:24
At least my generation experiences such cheap education and cost for educational level. We used to think university tuitions almost does not cost. At that time, National University of Japanese educational system served as a sort of recruiting system for different type classes of societies, which meant a sort of a mobility of society was much greater than nowadays. It is my impression, and I think it might be more desirable for social future. And while educational costs bother me for another reason too, which is reducing children. United States still has growing number of population, but Japan is declining population and many other advanced capitalist countries began to see the similar trend for smaller children, ageing society. It is very bad to see for the future of educational system to maintain. And social activity, aspirations, new ideas would be expected lesser degrees due to smaller number of children may make society very, very conservative. All the sociologists say second and third child is more in a sense, non-conservative.

Will Brehm  27:15

Makoto Itoh  27:15
Progressive, if you say. Or act more ambitiously for new ideas than first children. It is because mothers and fathers protect first child more carefully and the second and third are not cared for much.

Will Brehm  27:40
I am the second child.

Makoto Itoh  27:44
So, I understand why you came to Japan.

Will Brehm  27:50
More freedom, I guess. My brother has much more -I mean, my parents are probably listening to this conversation. And they were very good parents. I mean, that’s not an issue.

Makoto Itoh  28:02
You have to say that. [Laughter]

Will Brehm  28:07
You put me in a difficult position.

Makoto Itoh  28:11
And I’m the third child.

Will Brehm  28:13
Ah! That says a lot!

Makoto Itoh  28:15
My elder brother had to take care of my parents. He’s very good. And I feel a bit embarrassing to take care of my parents and go free as you did.

Will Brehm  28:36
And is that what brought you into the academy?

Makoto Itoh  28:40

Will Brehm  28:41
You felt like you had more freedom. You also joined some of the student protests in the 1970’s.

Makoto Itoh  28:48
Sometimes Yes, but not very much. But I was attracted to Marxism just for intellectual aspect. It seems too heavy problems to think. And I used to think everything quickly. But when I encountered Marxist capital, it was heavy, deep, not easy to understand. It is quite a shock to me. And how to understand those heavy deep thinking was an interesting experience. But the first time in my life to encounter such a theoretical system containing so deep work.

Will Brehm  29:42
So, it was a very intellectual pursuit for you?

Makoto Itoh  29:45
Yes, I began to read Marxist capital in what you say the first year of university?

Will Brehm  29:53
Freshmen year.

Makoto Itoh  29:53
Freshmen. Among my classroom friend invited me to join the reading group in our university class.

Will Brehm  30:04
Makoto Itoh, thank you so much for joining FreshEd

Makoto Itoh  30:07
It’s my pleasure.

Will Brehm  30:08
It really was my pleasure. I really enjoyed talking today.

Want to help translate this show? Please contact
Have any useful resources related to this show? Please send them to