Deconstructing Teach for All



What role does higher education play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?

My guest today is Tristan McCowan, author of the new book entitled Higher Education for and beyond the Sustainable Development Goals, which was published earlier this year. Tristan interrogates the idea of a so-called developmental university working towards the SGDs, identifying both positive and negative outcomes.

Tristan McCowan is a Professor of International Education at the Institute of Education, University College London. I spoke with Tristan in his office in London, which just so happens to be around the corner from mine. This is actually the first podcast that I’ve recorded at my new intuitional home at the Institute of Education. There’s a lot more to say about the future of FreshEd now that I live in London, but I’m going to wait until next year to tell you all about it. For now, enjoy our latest episode and stay tuned for our end of year show with Susan Robertson and Roger Dale, which will air next week.

Citation: McCowan, Tristan, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 184, podcast audio, December 9, 2019.

Will Brehm 1:39
Tristan McCowan, welcome to FreshEd.

Tristan McCowan 1:41
Thanks, Will. It is a great pleasure to be here.

Will Brehm 1:43
So, I want to start by talking a little bit about the SDGs, but specifically about higher education because this is something that might not get talked about as much as primary or secondary schooling. So where in the SDGs – in the Sustainable Development Goals – is higher education even mentioned?

Tristan McCowan 2:02
So, I think it is worth thinking about what comes before the SDGs to talk about how it does appear. And in the Millennium Development Goals that came before, there was a conspicuous absence of higher education there. So, the education goal was around primary education. I suppose higher education might be included in the requirement for gender equality that was also there, but it was absent in the education goal. And this was also indicative of a general neglect of higher education in the development community for some decades before. So, the inclusion of higher education in the SDGs marks something of a return – a rekindling of interest – in higher education generally in development. And there was a lot of discussion in the consultation around the creation of what was going to replace the MDGs about how higher education might be included in that. In the SDGs themselves, the most obvious inclusion of higher education is in how it appears as a target in itself. It appears along with vocational education, tertiary education, and a specific mention of university. So that is the access goal. It is not very demanding, in my view. It doesn’t require universal access or anything resembling that. What it requires is equal access, which, as we know from international law, is really around nondiscrimination. It is an important requirement, but it is not very demanding on this. But nevertheless, it is there. And I think it is very important that universities mentioned in terms of access, getting people into university or some form of higher education. But that is not the only way that it appears in the SDG. In the book, I distinguish between three different ways that it appears. So, there is that first one we have talked about, which is access, and then two others. The second is as part of the education system as a whole. And this relates to one of your previous podcasts that was talking about SDG 4.7 and the overarching aims of education in terms of promoting global citizenship, sustainable development itself. So higher education fits into that. It is part of the education system. And it might promote a lot of the goals that we would like to see in society. The third role for higher education is the one that the book focuses on mainly, and that is higher education as a driver for all of the goals. So, every one of the 17 goals in all different areas: environmental, health, poverty, and so forth require to some degree on universities in the broadest possible way, through its teaching, but also its research and community engagement and all of its functions.

Will Brehm 4:45
So I mean, in a way, what you’re saying is that universities have this massive role to play in the SDGs not simply as access not simply as being part of the education system to meet some of these very lofty goals of 4.7, which, as the previous podcasts have shown are very sort of diverse and complex ideas. But more importantly, and perhaps most importantly, this idea of higher education as being a driver of development. So, this is a pretty large role for education, for higher education. Can universities actually even fulfill this role, do you think?

Tristan McCowan 5:24
I think my answer to that is yes, but perhaps not in the way that might immediately be imagined. So, I think the potential of universities is extraordinary. And one of the arguments that I try to make in all different kinds of fora is that universities are essential for all countries and not just for the wealthy countries that we might imagine might afford it. Universities aren’t luxury; they are critical part of all countries, however impoverished they might be, however many challenges they might face. In fact, we might think of as being especially important in those. The teaching role of universities is crucial for forming professionals in a whole range of different areas, including the kinds of primary services that were focused on in the MDGs, but also in the SDGs, around education, health, and so forth. There is a much broader teaching role of universities as well for civic and personal benefits. There is the research role of universities, breakthroughs in health, the environment, all sorts of areas in which there are huge challenges facing humanity. And then the community engagement role where universities can apply that knowledge and also engage with the knowledge that communities have. So, the potential of universities is extraordinary. Whether they can fulfill that is a different matter, and that does depend on the level of quality that universities have, the resourcing that they have, how they are organized, the kinds of autonomy they have. So, it is not guaranteed. And I think, you know, the empirical research that we have… and we have fairly good research on some countries, less good on others. The research we have shows that they are sometimes able to do that. Sometimes they are able to do that in ways that we hadn’t actually imagined. In others, they struggle to. It is worth pointing out that in low-income countries, universities have roles that are not present in higher-income countries as providers of basic services often. So, communities will often use universities because they don’t have other spaces for meeting, for, you know, cultural pursuits. Even for things as basic as Internet access, and so forth. So, universities can play a really crucial role in all countries. The final point I’d make is that the role of universities as a driver perhaps is not as automatic or guaranteed as we might imagine, even when we might consider that to be a quality university. And that is because there is a level of unpredictability to all processes of learning and scholarship.

Will Brehm 8:01
So, what do you mean? Is there a downside, sometimes, to higher education?

Tristan McCowan 8:06
There certainly can be a downside. I mean, universities have not always had positive impacts on their societies through history. One of the downsides is in exacerbating inequalities in societies. So, while universities can certainly act as mechanisms for social mobility, they can also do the opposite. And in many points in history where access has been restricted to an elite, or for particular religious or language groups, or just for men, for example, it has actually made things worse rather than make things better. So, there is that element. Also, universities have been implicated in fostering of prejudice and xenophobia as all parts of the education system.

Will Brehm 8:51
Right. Okay. So you’re sort of taking this complex view, whether it’s good and bad, the development is not always this positive linear idea but can have a complex multitude of outcomes as a result of work in higher education, or any sector, I would imagine in education more broadly defined. So, I guess when we think about the university, what you are sort of saying is that not all universities are the same. There is a lot of potential in higher education, but what actually happens looks different in different contexts; the cultural context, the national context, whatever it is. So, when you think historically, then, how can we make sense of, you know, different types of universities? You know, maybe ideal types, not necessarily what actually exists. How can we start categorizing different types of universities?

Tristan McCowan 9:48
Thanks. It is a really important question, and one that’s not posed often enough, I think. And it is worth saying at the start that what we are seeing now across the world in higher education is much less diversity than there might have been. Historically there have been models of higher learning in many parts of the world – in India and China, in the Islamic world, in Mesoamerica. Other places as well that have been quite distinct. And many of those have been lost. In fact, most of them have been lost through history. We’ve seen a dominance of the European model of university from medieval Europe, which in its spreading around the world has gained new forms of diversity, but perhaps not as much as we might have wanted and still rooted in some very similar assumptions. So, there is a degree of homogeneity around the world, but what I argue is that universities have a kind of a mixing of different historical models within them. And as you say, they are partly ideal types and partly real historically. So, you have got the medieval institution, which was a community of scholars, a community of students, engaging and debate over authoritative texts. You have the Humboldtian model that emerges in the 19th century of the research university on the pursuit of truth and academic freedom and so forth. You have then got drives towards greater relevance of the university to society, and the land grant universities in the United States were very influential in this regard. Also moves in Latin America in the early 20th century towards democratization of the university space. And leading to what in Africa in the post Second World War period was called the “developmental university,” one that is tied very much to service to society. And then most recently, the emergence of the entrepreneurial or the enterprise university, one which is focused on income generation through selling of its services. So, we have got these different models, and I think we can see them all in our institutions. In some, you know, the entrepreneurial model is dominant. In others, we might see, you know, more of the Humboldtian model, but jostling for space, and of course, in the different actors that are engaged as well.

Will Brehm 12:07
You are thinking through this developmental university because it sort of links in with the SDGs. So, in what way do you see the developmental university? How do we think about that university, that type of university, if it truly does do service to society in the ideal that is written in the SDGs?

Tristan McCowan 12:31
Yeah, I mean I think if you look at the role that’s proposed for universities, it is something close to the developmental model: a university that has as its primary purpose serving society in an egalitarian mode, or perhaps beyond the egalitarian, actually focusing primarily on the most disadvantaged populations. By privileging those populations, reducing poverty and so forth, and dealing to a large extent with applied knowledge and an impact on nonacademic communities. And there is something of a contradiction there between the kinds of higher education that are promoted by many of the international agencies, which in many ways actually undermine that kind of developmental role of universities.

Will Brehm 13:13
How so?

Tristan McCowan 13:15
Particularly through a promotion of expansion at all costs. Now, there is a real need for expanding higher education. Access has grown rapidly over the last 20 years. But much of the expansion has taken place in very commercialized, for-profit sectors of higher education, or sometimes distance education with low quality, which has, while it has allowed more people to gain higher education diplomas, it has not necessarily allowed them the learning that will be meaningful in their lives, and certainly hasn’t promoted research and community engagement in the public interest. So, there have been dynamics in the growth of higher education sectors, which have brought some benefit for individuals, but without much of a contribution to the public good.

Will Brehm 14:04
So, given this sort of “massification” of higher education and how that might begin to challenge some of the value and the functions of the university, what sort of trends have you noticed worldwide? You know, let’s take a broad view here. Broadly speaking, what sort of major trends do you see in higher education today?

Tristan McCowan 14:24
Well, one of them I have touched on already, which is the move towards commercialization. Which is present in the astounding growth of the for-profit sector. And that is very evident in one of the countries that I work very closely with, which is Brazil, but you can also see it in many other parts of the world. But also, of course, there is a commercialization of public institutions through so-called cost-sharing policies, the charging of fees, and other forms of creeping privatization. Now commercialization is a term that encompasses a whole range of different activities which have different kinds of influence. And it is certainly, in an immediate sense, has assisted in allowing higher education systems to grow. So, it is complex. But if we are thinking about the SDGs, or about the public good more generally, there are some very worrying outcomes of that. Firstly, around the attaching of quality to price. So, as the system starts to marketize more, variable costs of courses will start to become attached either to quality or to prestige, which has worrying implications for equity. But also it makes it much harder for universities to engage in research in the public benefit, or community engagement in the public benefit, without some kind of a name to generate income from those communities; makes it much harder to fulfill the SDGs. So that is one of the big trends. A second trend is associated with the very often discussed international rankings in higher education. And one of the implications of those rankings is a privileging of a certain kind of university or a certain kind of university action. And I am not saying for a moment that the elite universities that do well in rankings are not benefiting the SDGs. Actually, I think they are with a lot of their work. But it is certainly not the only kind of institution that does that. And much of the work that is most beneficial for communities around the world is not valued by those rankings. Community engagement has almost no presence in the rankings. And an inclusive intake of students also is not valued through most of the rank.

Will Brehm 16:33
In your book, you point to this like unbelievable indicator or proxy for, I think its quality of teaching in these rankings, that is used. Can you explain what it is?

Tristan McCowan 16:44
Well, in the Shanghai ranking, the number of alumni with Nobel Prizes is taken as a proxy for quality, which is…

Will Brehm 16:52
That is crazy! I mean, so, these rankings then, the way they sort of measure this idea of quality across universities, can be pretty absurd, almost to the extreme sometimes.

Tristan McCowan 17:06
It is a small minority of all higher education institutions that are listed on international rankings at all. So, you could say, “Well, perhaps it’s irrelevant”. But actually, it does have an influence. Because even if most institutions don’t have a realistic chance of getting into the upper echelons, discursively, it does influence the way institutions see themselves. They start not to value the good work that they are doing. And they start to aspire towards work that perhaps isn’t in their best interest.

Will Brehm 17:33
I mean, we are sitting here at the Institute of Education, and out the front door, there is a big sign with the ranking on it. I mean, it is sort of, you know, it is the first thing you see when you walk into this building.

Tristan McCowan 17:46
Yeah, absolutely.

Will Brehm 17:48
So, one of the last trends that you write about in your book, you use the word “unbundling”. Can you explain what this is? I never really came across this term before.

Tristan McCowan 17:57
So, it is a term that comes from business originally. And it is the process of separating out products that had previously been sold together for commercial advantage, either for the producer or sometimes for the consumer. I suppose the most obvious example in contemporary times is low-cost airlines, where you are not tied into paying for your baggage or your seat or so forth; you can purchase things individually. In higher education, it is a very controversial process. It is quite incipient; we’re just seeing the earliest signs of it yet. But for example, the separation out of different parts of what we might have considered to be the bundle of higher education. Of instruction, assessment, research, extracurricular activities, and so forth. So, one way that this has manifested itself is in the provision of no-frills, what I call no-frills courses. Very basic provision, where you pay a lower cost, and you just have access to the basic instruction, and you have to pay extra if you want some other things

Will Brehm 19:01
Such as? Like access to the library?

Tristan McCowan 19:03
Well, I have never seen a case of no access at all to the library. But certainly, there is an example in the UK where you have very minimal access to university facilities beyond what you would basically need to do one’s course. You know, this does open the door to a kind of a segregation of lower and higher-income students.

Will Brehm 19:25
Of course. And where does the process end? Right, you almost can get to the point where you have to pay to use the bathroom.

Tristan McCowan 19:30
Absolutely, absolutely. I think it is very worrying. It is a seductive idea because it appears to be addressing the huge escalation of costs, particularly in the United States. And allowing more people into the higher education system. So, it is seductive in that sense, but it is very worrying because then you start to have a very hierarchical system, a stratified system, where disadvantaged students have access to less.

Will Brehm 19:54
Second class students. You know, these are pretty worrying trends. This idea of status, this idea of commodification and commercialization, and this idea of unbundling. So, do you think this idea of, you know, the developmental university, service to society, these sort of liberal democratic ideals. You know, what has to change so we can actually create universities that embrace those ideas rather than … or, you know. It seems as if some of these other ideas and trends you have been talking about sort of go against some of these developmental ideas.

Tristan McCowan 20:32
Well, I think we need two things. I think there does need to be state investment; there needs to be public investment and state support. But I wouldn’t want to say that all of initiative needs to come from the central state. I think we also need to create more opportunities for local innovation. So, in my work, I am very interested in and supportive of various grassroots initiatives in higher education. I think this is a really important part of the answer as well. And there are some great examples around the world of developmental institutions. They are fragile in many cases, but they are very inspiring. So, we have got University for Development Studies in Northern Ghana, which is a very interesting institution serving the arid regions of Northern Ghana, working in very innovative ways with integrated teaching and research and community engagement. There are the so-called “thematic” federal universities in Brazil, which were established over the last 15 years to promote different forms of international engagement and local development. They are fragile because, to a large extent, they just depend on the governments of their day. And in Brazil, you have had a very radical shift to the right and the consequent withdrawal of support from these institutions. You have also got challenges with innovative institutions starting to, you know, being pulled back to the conventional type over the years. So, there are challenges, but there are some inspiring examples that we can look to.

Will Brehm 22:01
I also think about some of these protests in Chile. I know it started recently with bus fare increase, but it sort of dovetailed with that longer student protests from 2013 that was very much against what we might call the “neoliberal university,” or whatever it might be. And even here in London, they only just had, in the UK, 60 universities went on strike for about eight days trying to really counter a lot of these same trends that you are talking about. So, there are these signs, it seems, of pushback. Now, will it actually result in any action, that’s another sort of question, I guess.

Tristan McCowan 22:41
Absolutely. I think there are mobilizations in different parts of the world. South Africa recently has had a huge student mobilization around decolonization, the curriculum, and also around fees. I think we look at Chile as a great example of a student mobilization, not only because of its massiveness, but also because, perhaps unusually, but very successfully, what started as a student mobilization started to bring other spheres of society on board. And also gained real endorsement from society and, you know, made things … you know, the government couldn’t ignore it anymore. So, I think it is a really successful example.

Will Brehm 23:20
You know, that actually makes me think of the Chicago teacher strikes in America, where it wasn’t higher education, but it was public school teachers going on strike, I think 2012/2013. And one of the reasons that they were successful, that many scholars point to, is precisely the same reason is that they had this broad coalition; it wasn’t just this narrow focus on teaching and learning, but it brought in all sectors of society, and it became such a massive movement that the government had to respond. And more importantly, a lot of the leaders from that strike ended up getting elected in many parts in Chicago. So, I mean, it seems like it is a bigger conversation on social mobilization and successful social mobilization.

Tristan McCowan 24:03
That is a really interesting example. And it also makes me think of, you know, these ideas of “post-truth” and “anti-experts” that were coming out in 2016, through Brexit and the election in the United States. And I think some politicians have tried to drive a wedge between universities and society by creating resentment. And I think it is a really important task that those involved in universities have is to try and communicate with society this shared enterprise to a large degree.

Will Brehm 24:32
Exactly. And to see it as a service to society. It is not just our own little siloed workspaces here. So, as great as that makes me feel: this idea of social mobilization and trying to change universities away from status competition, away from commodification, away from unbundling, I do wonder – and you point out in your book – that, you know, there’s a critique, as well, of that movement. Of, you know, promoting a university for liberal democracy, for furthering capitalism in many respects. So how can we even begin to think about post-development: a critique of development itself?

Tristan McCowan 25:14
So, this is why I ended up making the title “For and Beyond”, because it is very important to look beyond as well. And I see the SDGs as being important. I am not trivializing them, but they are an intermediate step. And I think ultimately, they are not going to solve all of the problems that the global community faces at the moment. As you say, the SDGs are rooted in liberal capitalist model, to a large extent, a modernization model. And there are some deep flaws in those, and indeed, you know, we can be very skeptical about whether a capitalist system can ever really achieve, you know, equality and sustainability in a global community. You know, some of the incentives for accumulation and profit that corporations have are precisely the problem that we have with the fossil fuel lobby and so forth. So, there are some real problems there. There’s another issue with the SDGs in the lack of attention to questions of identity, culture, language that leading into another issue that I think is important to a certain relation to higher education, which is around what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls a dialogue of knowledges. So how can we think about epistemic pluralism? How can we think about not just mainstream Western academic knowledge, which is important. But how do we put that in dialogue with other forms of knowledge from different knowledge communities, from indigenous peoples, from diverse traditions around the world, which will inevitably enrich that knowledge. And this is a very important aspect of where we go with development and also where we go with higher education. And I think we need to think about two forms of creativity and imagination in the higher education space: one is around questioning the institutional forms that we are very familiar with. You know, we look at a university, and we assume that it’s going to have very particular kinds of structures and practices. And I think we need to open up our imagination, perhaps drawing on Ivan Illich’s ideas of deschooling to think about how our university might be otherwise. And then the second point around epistemic pluralism, around having different kinds of knowledge in the university, and drawing on the experiences. I’m familiar with experiences in Latin America, indigenous institutions around the continent, but there are some in other parts of the world as well, Swaraj University in India is an interesting example of how we can create universities in different ways. And if we need to go beyond the SDGs, we need to think about sustainable development. It is a different kind of university that’s going to help us achieve it.

Will Brehm 27:56
Tristan McCowan, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It really was a pleasure talking today, and I look forward to your next book.

Tristan McCowan 28:02
Thank you very much.

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Teach For America developed an alternative teacher education model that spread not only around the United States but also across the world.

My guest today is Rolf Straubhaar, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and School Improvement at Texas State University. In his latest article in the Journal of Teacher Education, Rolf looks at the Teach For All affiliate in Brazil called Ensina! In our conversation, Rolf explores the history of TFA, the motivation of people to join the program, and how their perspectives changed over time.

Citation: Straubhaar, Rolf, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 176, podcast audio, October 14, 2019.

Transcript, Translation, and Resources:

Read more


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.

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Teaching is a profession that must respond to the changing social world. From new technology and curriculum reforms to privatization and climate change – teachers are on the front-lines of a complex system that has huge consequences for the future.  In this context, what is it like to be a teacher today? How do teachers manage the competing pressures?

My guest today is  Armand Doucet, an award-winning teacher recognized around the world. Nominated in the Top 50 for the Global Teacher Prize, Armand is a high school history teacher in New Brunswick, Canada and the author of the new book Teaching Life: Our Calling, Our Choices, Our Challenges.

Citation: Doucet, Armand, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 170, podcast audio, September 2, 2019.

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Today we air the first ever FreshEd Live event, which was recorded last night in San Francisco. Gita Steiner-Khamsi joined me to discuss the ways in which the global education industry has altered the State and notions of free public education.

We touched on a range of topics, from Bridge International to theInternational Baccalaureate and from network governance to system theory. Gita theorized why the State has taken on the logic of business and how a quantum leap in privatization has radically altered education.

Gita Steiner-Khamsi is permanent faculty at Teachers College, Columbia University. In addition, she has been seconded by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva as a faculty member and by NORRAG as the director.

This FreshEd Live event was sponsored by NORRAG.

Citation: Steiner-Khamsi, Gita, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 150, podcast audio, April 15, 2019.

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Today we kick off a mini-series on education and law. Intermittently, overly the next 8 months or so, we’ll be airing a collection of conversations with scholars affiliated with the Education Law Association. These shows will touch on timely legal and policy issues affecting education.

For our first show in the education and law mini-series, I speak with Julie Mead about her new co-written report with Suzanne Eckes for the National Education Policy Center entitled: How school privatization opens the door for discrimination.

In our conversation, we touch on a range of issues related to voucher programs and charter schools. Julie reminds listeners that the dictionary definition of discrimination is not the same as the legal definition.

Julie Mead is the Associate Dean for Education and Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  She is a member of the Education Law Association.

Citation: Mead, Julie, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 149, podcast audio, April 8, 2019.

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Many countries around the world participate in the Programme for International Student Assessment, the cross-national test administered by the OECD. Today we look at the economic costs for a country to participate in PISA. My guests are Laura Engel and David Rutkowski. They followed the money through publicly available budget documents in the United States to uncover exactly how much the test costs both the federal and state governments.

Through this complicated web, they found a host of contractors and sub-contractors hired to implement PISA and call for a full cost-benefit analysis in order to determine if PISA is worth it.

Laura Engel is an Associate Professor of International Education and International Affairs at the George Washington University and David Rutkowski is an Associate Professor with a joint appointment in Educational Policy and Educational Inquiry at Indiana University School of Education. Their latest co-written article published in the journal Discourse is called “Pay to play: What does PISA participation cost in the US?”

Citation: Engle, Laura & Rutkowski, David, interview with WillBrehm, FreshEd, 146, podcast audio, January 16, 2019.

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Many listeners probably use LinkedIn. That’s the social media website aimed at connecting employers with employees. My guest today, Janja Komljenovic, researches the ways in which LinkedIn is shaped by and shaping higher education.

Janja argues that LinkedIn furthers the employability mandate in universities.

Janja Komljenovic is a lecturer of higher education at Lancaster University. In today’s show, we discuss her new article “Linkedin, Platforming labour, and the new employability mandate for universities,” which was published in Globalisation, Societies and Education.

Citation:Komljenovic, Janja, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 129, podcast audio, October 8, 2018.

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Today we explore the schooling received by children affected by the Trump administration’s immigration policy of family separation.

My guest is Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at California State University Sacramento. Julian writes a blog entitled “Cloaking Inequity”. In a recent post, he reported on a Texas-based detention center forcing children to use an online, for-profit charter school.

Citation: Heilig, Julian Vasquez, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 125, podcast audio, September 10, 2018.

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