Productive Capabilities: Zeroing in on TVET for Social Justice

Laura Servage   January, 2018

Although formal education has progressively expanded across the globe, increased education levels and access have not been sufficient to reduce income inequality (Tikly, 2013). Instead, income inequality, in developed and developing countries alike, is growing. Part of the difficulty is that expanded education has taken place alongside dramatic shifts in the nature of paid labour. In developed countries, mid-skill level jobs are disappearing; in developing countries, they are not growing (ILO 2015; OECD 2015). Also, despite increased overall education levels, countries continue to vary a great deal, both internally and compared with one another, in the political freedoms, material advantages, health and well-being they offer their citizens.

The limitations of education to improve people’s well-being and life chances have been attributed in part to broader failings of human capital theory (HCT). Since its ascendancy in the 1980s, human capital theory has dominated development policies, including how the purposes of education and work are construed. In its crudest forms, HCT frames education as something in which people invest time and money for the sole purpose of improving their economic circumstances through better paying jobs. As critics have well noted, this model fails to recognize that the things that contribute to the quality of people’s lives extend well beyond how much money they have in their pockets.

The HCT model also very much underplays the non-monetary aspects of work that contribute to human suffering or well-being: as UNESCO-UNEVOC (2018) state, “work undertaken by individuals and groups has a major impact upon their self-identity, social status and standard of living.” Productive work then, far from an impoverished version focused on pay cheques alone, goes to the heart of our personal identity, fulfillment, and esteem. It factors centrally in our relationships — those nearest in the quality of family life and work environments — and relationships more broadly in terms of the recognition and status we are afforded by others.

A broad conceptualization of work is central to the improvement of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) because a breadth of human needs and desires are invoked, if not always met, by engaging in productive labour. This is recognized in UNESCO’s SDG4 (Sustainable Development Goal 4) Education 2030: Framework for Action, in which substantial attention is given to “equitable and increased access to quality technical and vocational education and training (TVET)” alongside widened access to HE.

Tikly (2013) believes that the capabilities model of human development is reflected in Education 2030, including its conceptualization of TVET. The “capabilities approach” was developed by Indian economist Amartya Sen, with substantial subsequent contributions by American philosopher Martha Nussbaum. The capabilities approach is a normative theory that focuses on how different aspects of a society may be developed to maximize human well-being and freedom instead of just economic growth. Human capabilities are what people are able to “do and be” — that is, how human flourishing growth, socio-political conditions and the built environment, can be fostered so that all people in a society are able to choose and work toward outcomes that they “have reason to value” (Sen, 1999).

Because the capabilities model stresses that enhanced and expanded human capabilities rather than economic goals must be the end game of development policies, we need to ask what TVET looks like — how it is conceptualized, actualized and distributed — when it is designed according to the capabilities model.

What are “productive capabilities?”

Seeking to elaborate on the applicability of the capabilities approach to TVET, Moodie and colleagues explain that “productive capabilities” are those “resources and arrangements of work and the broad knowledge, skills and attributes that individuals need to be productive at work, to progress in their careers, and to participate in decision-making about work” (Moodie, Wheelahan, Fredman and Bexley, 2015). In other words, how might systems of learning and work be organized so that people have at their disposal an ever-expanding capacity or set of capabilities, to work toward things they care about? By identifying “productive capabilities,” Moodie et al. hope to contribute to policy conversations that shift the emphasis of TVET from a narrow focus on skills to a more expansive model of work and learning that contributes to social justice according to the ideals of the Education 2030 Framework.

Work remains to be done, however. As Alkire (2005) discusses, the capabilities model is intentionally broad; Sen has always emphasized the context-specific nature of capabilities because they will look different, and evolve differently depending on the societies and communities in which they are pursued. Capabilities in TVET, then, must be operationalized.

Alkire further observes, however, that in the process of operationalization, the original intents of a concept or theory may become “vulnerable to subversion by misinterpretation” (p. 116). Given the continued dominance of human capital theory in tertiary education policy, there is a risk that “productive capabilities” might be reduced to a synonym of “skills development,” global competencies,” “generic skills,” “graduate attributes,” or any among the host of terms that policy makers use to describe transferable worker skills. The best defense here may be a strong offense: a relentless effort to ensure that the concept of “productive capabilities” when it is used in policy and policy critique, remains faithful to Sen’s broader capabilities model, with its emphasis on human development and freedom as the end game of policy making.

In their project with Education International, Wheelahan and Moodie discuss how a shift from “skills” to “productive capabilities” might influence linkages between education and labour markets. The capabilities approach to human development is explicitly democratic; societies and communities must negotiate to decide what “beings and doings” should take priority in development goals. Similarly, in pathways between education and work, the authors argue that social partnerships among workers, employers and the state must be similarly democratic.

Social partnerships coordinate education and work by agreement among stakeholders. Following the Varieties of Capitalism approach, Wheelahan and Moodie propose that social partnerships have potential not only to be more effective than market models of labour, but also to directly contribute to the ideals of social justice through work embedded in Education 2030.

You can read more about productive capabilities in the full report, Global Trends in TVET: A framework for social justice.


Alkire, S. (2005). Why the capability approach? Journal of Human Development, 6(1), 115–135.

International Labour Organization. (2015). World employment social outlook trends 2015. Retrieved from Geneva: Retrieved from—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_337069.pdf

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2015). Education at a glance 2015: OECD Indicators. Retrieved from Paris: <

Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. New York: Anchor Books

Tikly, L. (2013). Reconceptualizing TVET and development: a human capability and social justice approach. In UNESCO (Ed.), Revisiting global trends in TVET: Reflections on theory and practice (pp. 1-39). Bonn: UNESCO-UNEVOC International Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training.

UNESCO-UNEVOC (2018). What is TVET? Retrieved from

UNESCO (2016). Strategy for technical and vocational education and training (TVET) 2016-2021. Paris. Retrieved from

UNESCO (2015). Education 2030 Incheon declaration and framework for action: Towards inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all. Paris. Retrieved from


TVET for Social Justice: March 8th

As part of CIDEC’s Winter Seminar series, the  PEW Research Team will present new comparative research in TVET “Social Justice through Technical and Vocational Education and Training: Insights from World Case Studies.” March 8, 2018, 11:30-1:00 pm.

4th International Pathways Collaborative Symposium

We are inviting researchers to submit an expression of interest to participate in our 4th International Symposium in Bolzano, Italy from 2 – 6pm on Monday 3 September 2018. The key theme for the colloquium will be ‘Theorising pathways through and to education and work’. 

Enquiries may be directed to Ann-Marie BathmakerGavin MoodieKevin Orr or Leesa Wheelahan.

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