EI General Secretary critiques the World Bank’s Human Capital Index

On the eve of the launch of the World Bank’s Human Capital Index (HCI), David Edwards, General Secretary of Education International, critiques the new global metric.

The HCI measures the contribution of health and education to the productivity of the next generation of workers. According to the Bank, countries can use it to assess how much income they are foregoing because of human capital gaps, and how they can turn these losses into gains if they act now.

Tomorrow, the Bank will release the HCI data and host a “Human Capital Summit” at its Annual Meetings in Mangupura, Bali. The Bank and other high-level speakers will issue a global call to action for countries to nurture human capital and “drive people-focused investments” in health and education.

Undermining SDG4

“At best, I see it as an ill-timed distraction from the hard work being done in countries and across regions to ensure and monitor predictable, equitable and sustainable funding within the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) framework,” said Edwards. “At worst I see it as a new ‘Washington Nonsensus’ initiative that potentially undermines the global education community’s efforts to achieve quality education for all.”

EI has consistently called for governments to allocate more funds to education. Teachers are well appraised about the importance of well-funded and resourced public education systems for education quality and equity better. Yet, according to EI’s General Secretary, the creation of this new measurement is nonetheless highly problematic.  

In his blog (available here), Edwards outlines three reasons why the index undermines rather than contributes to the global education community’s efforts to achieve quality education for all.

The wrong approach

Edwards believes that, rather than taking a rights-based approach to education, the index focuses on the economic argument that governments should invest in education simply because of its financial returns. “Framed as human capital, workers are reduced to commodities” and “framed as a means to make productive workers, education is reduced to an input for economic prosperity”, he says.

Non-cooperation on education data

Second, he emphasises the folly of putting work and resources into gathering data that is already being created by others. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) already has an index for human development, and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (the organisation with the mandate to monitor SDG4) has been working on a sophisticated method for collaborating education outcomes data to be cross-nationally comparable for some years already.

Issues with global learning metrics

Finally, Edwards reminds us of the potential unintended consequences of producing such an index. Competitive ranking of countries according to test results has the potential to lead to policies which focus on gaining quick improvements in standardised tests rather than policies to sustainably improve teaching and learning.  

A warning

Edwards’ critique that “[the HCI] is old wine in new bottles” serves as a warning to supporters of the HCI. It is yet to be seen whether the index has any impact on education financing. What is clear is that Bank’s discourse on human capital undermines the notion of education as a human right and public good.

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