Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance

SKOPE Seminar Series ¦ Professor Phillip Brown – Education and the Death of Human Capital

07Jun2017
15 Norham Gardens, Oxford OX2 6PY

From 16:30 until 18:30

At Seminar Room B, Department of Education, University of Oxford

15 Norham Gardens, Oxford OX2 6PY

Education and the Death of Human Capital?

Phillip Brown, Hugh Lauder and Sin Yi Cheung

In Theodore W. Schultz’s Presidential Address to the American Economic Association (1960), he proclaimed that human capital would revolutionize Western capitalism and the fate of developing nations. He told his audience that labour should no longer be treated as a factor of production like land, machines or factories, as investment in education was the key to improving individual life-chances, productivity and economic growth. Gary Becker later declared that we live in the ‘age of human capital’. Globally, trillions of dollars continue to be spent on education and training by governments, companies, families and students, in the belief that it will deliver economic growth, higher productivity and individual prosperity. At the same time it is estimated that student debt in the United States alone has reached a staggering $1.2 trillion.

It may seem surprising to talk about the death of human capital at a time of unprecedented global expansion of education and rapid advances in digital technologies. But we are not arguing that human labour is less important or asserting the end of work in a world in which robots will take over. Our argument is that the death of human capital is the death of an idea not an economic reality.

This talk will describe how we have reached a structural tipping point where education and the labour market no longer work in the way they've done in the past. It describes how the human capital equation of ‘learning equals earning’ doesn’t add up, and offers a revisionist history of human capital theory, explaining why its early popularity was based on a ‘happy accident’ and why Schultz’s human capital revolution has contributed to a ‘revolt of the elites’.

In outlining a new theory we begin by explaining why the term ‘human capital’ should not be abandoned but redefined. Many concepts that are part of the lexicon of public debate, including ‘opportunity’, ‘education’, ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’, are contested. By turning human capital into a contested concept we wish to inject new life into policy and scholarly debate.

To achieve this we re-examine the role of human beings and their relationship to capital. Our definition of human capital seeks to re-capture a wider understanding of education based on a capabilities approach to human capital. We also argue that a new human capital is required to address today’s challenges presented by global competition, new technologies, economic inequalities and national debt, reigniting longstanding debates about income redistribution, the future of work and the role of job markets. In conclusion we argue that the race between education and technology is not one of training more people for high-tech jobs as proposed by Goldin and Katz, but rather a race to reimagine education, work and the labour market in a fundamentally different economic and social world.

The Death of Human Capital? Its Failed Promise and How to Renew It

(forthcoming, New York: Oxford University Press).

Date: Wednesday, 7th June, 2017

Time: 16:30 -18:30 (Coffee and Tea from 16:30-17:00, Seminar from 17:00-18:00, followed by drinks and nibbles at 18:00)

Location: Seminar Room B, Department of Education, University of Oxford. 15 Norham Gardens, Oxford OX2 6PY

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