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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2001

'Human Capital' Means More than More Money

Jim Stanford's commentary "We Don't Need No Education" (Bulletin, September 2001) provides a breath of fresh air to all the cant about the purpose of higher education being for "higher productivity" and "global market competitiveness."

But the irony of the title may be misleading. Stanford argues for more education, not less. His point is that higher education is not needed to serve the market with employee skills already in oversupply. It is needed to develop goods "for human beings and for democracy."

It is important to recognize the error that "human capital" means better human instruments for higher money returns to private stockholders on their investments. The movement to understanding capital as more than the reified subsystem of money capital is centuries old. Jane Austen's male characters were typed as so many pounds per year, the heyday of money-fetish capital. This is a problem that is greater than ever today. Other kinds of capital are being recognized, human, natural and social capital, but each is still subjugated to money capital as the god of all value. Do not underestimate the religious absolutism at work here.

Consider the National Science Organization Working Group which is now planning a national research authority, the Canadian Academies, to represent the natural sciences, engineering, health sciences, social sciences and the humanities both within Canada and internationally. A board of directors, appointed by the Minister of Industry, "will approve and direct the Canadian Academies' programs." The administrative mover of the proposed organization, NSERC President Tom Brzustowski, is on record as saying: "I contend that one global object of post-secondary education ... must necessarily be a greater capability ... to create wealth ... (to) export products in which our knowledge and our skills provide the value added ... to develop new services which we can offer in trade on the world market."

"Human capital" here is understood as investment of money into education so that students turn into producers of net higher revenues. This "value adding"property qualifies the bearers of this sequence as "human capital" because they too are transformed into money sequences producing more money value than what their training costs. On the basis of this upside-down logic, education is the middle term between money inputs and more money outputs. This aim of education is now proclaimed from political and academic pulpits as the key to "human capital growth" — and thus "economic growth" which is posited as the panacea for all ills.

This is a cultural insanity. It is time we grew out of money-capital fetishism and saw that capital is wealth that is used to create more wealth and that money capital is only a form of it, an instrument to create means of life. If it is not used to create means of life, as it increasingly does not, it is dead capital. It is demand on life that consumes it with no return. This is what we should learn from a university education.

The university, in contrast, is a developer of human capital in the true sense, life-wealth that creates more life-wealth by advancing knowledge and disseminating learning. By properly comprehending its mission, the university can lead the way out of the dead-end functions to which it is being reduced by confused value-thinking from a totalizing corporate creed.

John McMurtry
Philosophy, University of Guelph

Information on the National Science Organization Working Group and the proposal for the creation of the Canadian Academies can be viewed at