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Education as economic stimulus in the human capital century

Hannah Forsyth (National School of Arts and Humanities, Australian Catholic University, Sydney, Australia)

History of Education Review

ISSN: 0819-8691

Article publication date: 23 January 2023

Issue publication date: 8 May 2023




This paper explores the economic and social effects of human capital investment in the 20th century. As well as drawing on census data and statistical yearbooks in Australia and Aoteoroa/New Zealand, the paper develops its argument by an intersection of scholarly work in sociology, economics and the history of education to consider the effects of increased human capital investment on economic growth but also on the experiences of childhood, work discipline and the present climate crisis.


This paper considers the implications of what economic historian Claudia Goldin has described as the “human capital century” for the history of school and university education. By reconsidering education in the settler colonies, especially Australia and Aoteoroa/New Zealand, as “stimulus”, this helps explain key aspects of contemporary human capital investment, which the paper argues should be understood as constituted by children's and young people's free labour at school, university and across the economy.


This research argues that children's and young people's free labour, performed in educational institutions, constitutes a large portion of Australia and Aoteoroa/New Zealand's national investment in human capital. At key points, this investment has acted as an economic stimulus, promoting surges of profitability. The effects were not confined to young people. Systematised, educational expansion also became the foundation of environmental degradation, labour market exploitation and a relentless increase in service-sector productivity that is worn on professional bodies. Productivity increases have been associated with reduced professional autonomy as a managerial class coerced professionals into working harder, though often under the guise of working “smarter” – a fiction that encouraged or coerced even greater personal investment in collective human capital. This investment of personal time, effort and selfhood by children and the professionals they grew into can thus be seen, in Marxian terms, as a crucial vector of capitalist exploitation in the 20th century.

Practical implications

The paper concludes by suggesting that a reduction of managerial influence in educational settings would improve learner and professional autonomy with improved labour and environmental conditions.


The paper makes a unique contribution to the history of education by exploring education as stimulus as a key component of education’s role in 20th and 21st century capitalism. It interrogates exploitative aspects of human capital investment, especially in the midst of environmental catastrophe and the recent COVID crisis.



The author acknowledges receiving the Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award DE170100466 ‘Are We All Middle Class now? A History of Professions in Australia’.


Forsyth, H. (2023), "Education as economic stimulus in the human capital century", History of Education Review, Vol. 52 No. 1, pp. 1-13.



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