IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Challenging the Skills Fetish

31 March 2022, 2:00 pm–3:00 pm

Students listening to university lecture. Image by luckybusiness / Abobe Stock.

Join this webinar to hear Leesa Wheelahan and Gavin Moodie discuss the role of human capital theory in post-compulsory education.

This event is free.

Event Information

Open to







Carly Brownbridge

This webinar comes from the Centre for Global Higher Education's (CGHE) recently published article 'Challenging the Skills Fetish' together with James Doughney from Victoria University in Australia. 

This webinar will challenge human capital theory's dominant status as Doxa, taken-for-granted and unquestioned truth, in post-compulsary education. 

Human capital theory posits that skills underwrite individual, firm and national prosperity, and that failure to invest in appropriate skills will lead to languishing. 

This webinar will set out an argument that human capital theory moved from being a descriptive theory in the 1960s and 1970s which sought to explain why individuals, firms and nations invested in increasingly higher levels of education, to a normative theory in the 1980s and 1990s, in which education should be about skills for work. And finally, in the 2000s, human capital theory has moved to a prescriptive framework where education must be about skills for work, and funding and policy is directed towards that goal. 

Lisa and Gavin will then trace the evolution of lifelong learning policies and shows how they narrowed to progressively focus on skills for work. They will draw an analogy with Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism to argue that human capital theory fetishises skill as something that exists independently of the bodies of those who exercise skill and of the social context which enables and gives value to people’s exercise of their skills. 

This event will be particularly useful for those interested in higher education and the economics of higher education. 

CGHE series on the Alternative Economics of Higher Education

This seminar is part of this series. These seminars are designed to start, to support, to air and to discuss new thinking about the economics of higher education. It will hear from speakers who are unsatisfied with the economic policy frameworks currently in use and and who are determined to find and apply better alternatives.

Related links

About the Speakers

Leesa Wheelahan

Professor at University of Toronto

Gavin Moodie

Adjunct Professor at University of Toronto