Human Capital

‘Making human capital’? No thanks.

Marnie Holborow

If Ireland is to achieve its ambitions for recovery and development within an innovation-driven economy, it is essential to create and enhance human capital by expanding participation in higher education (Hunt Report p.12).

A measure of how deep business thinking has gone in Irish universities is the now widespread use of the term human capital. The Hunt Report, various government skills reports and the HEA now freely declare their mission to increase, develop, enhance human capital, seemingly unaware of the crude view of education, and students, that it invokes.

The term, so recklessly adopted across the government reports on higher education, originated with Gary Becker from the Chicago School of Economics in the 1960’s. At the time, even these early neoliberals, considered human capital to be too debasing to be used.

Seeing students as human capital is about making higher education strictly a supply-chain for the economy and bending education to employers’ needs. Rarely has a more economically reductionist and impoverished view of education come to dominate official policy, yet there has been no debate in Ireland about whether we want to go down this road. This is why this charter is important.

Human capital theory sees society and education purely in individual terms. On the one hand, human capital can be honed in education systems to fit a perceived need in the labour market. On the other, individual ‘entrepreneurship’ is supposed to be the main driver of economic growth. The contradiction goes some way towards conceding that not every graduate can be a successful entrepreneur, and that many will end up a simple employee (if they are lucky).

The theory aims to entice students by convincing them that if they make the rational choice to ‘invest’ in (i.e. pay more for) their education they will get rewarded with a higher income. Obviously, this notion suits government policy which is to reduce state funding for Third Level education. But students are being sold a pig in a poke. The reality is that (apart from the fact that no student would actually refer to themselves as human capital), graduates across the world are underpaid and – if in employment – doing jobs for which they are overqualified. These are the issues our universities need to address.

Human capital theory emerged from a rather extreme version of neo-classical economics, with which few would openly identify. Yet our higher education system is being shaped according to its dictates, slavishly following a political project which, since the crash of 2008, has been shamefully discredited. Other university systems – such as Quebec and Chile – in the light of failed economic policies have successfully challenged the neoliberal orthodoxy. Is it not time that we did the same here?

Marnie Holborow, Lecturer, School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies, and Secretary SIPTU Section, DCU.

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