January 22, 2017

How do we measure the 'unmeasurable'?

By Theresa Millman


The VET sector in Australia has traditionally been linked to workforce participation goals and outcomes. As such, the purpose of VET as defined by policy and practice has always been to provide opportunities for the skilling of participants preparatory to either joining the labour market or upgrading the skills and qualifications of those already in employment. However, research in adult education and training in recent years suggests that ‘hidden’ social capital outcomes can be complementary to human capital outcomes in a course of study. However, to date, adult education and training policies, particularly in VET with their emphasis on human capital, have not formally recognised social capital models, nor seen the need to be inclusive of social capital in planning, policy and implementation of adult education.  

What is human capital?

Human capital has been defined by the Organisation for Economic and Co-operation Development (OECD, 2000, in Allison, Gorringe & Lacey, 2006) as the knowledge, skills and competencies necessary for the workforce. Although there are variations of this definition, for example, the OECD later added personal, social and economic well-being (Watts et al, 2006), generally the emphasis of human capital models is on economic returns from an investment in education and training. In describing human capital theory Olaniyan and Okemakinde (2008. p. 158) state, ‘human capital theory emphasises how education increases the productivity and efficiency of workers by increasing the level of cognitive stock of economically productive human capability which is a product of innate abilities and investment in human beings’.  Such a model, it has been criticised, tends to the mechanistic view of humans as, ‘one-dimensional’ and is not inclusive of other factors such as human sociability and the social context of learning (Baptiste, 2001. p. 195).

The limitations of a human capital approach

McHugh (2007, p. 10) puts forward a compelling argument on the limitations of a human capital model in adult education and training by suggesting that while it is impossible, and indeed undesirable to undermine the ‘logic of neo-capitalism’, it is still possible to consider social capital and the role of human agency. Critics of human capital models point out that the success of the application of skills and knowledge developed in the classroom may very well depend on other factors around the learner, for example, their networks of family, schools and local communities. As Cote (2001.p.31) argues, ‘it is essential to understand [human capital’s] role in economic growth against a wider backdrop of institutional, social and cultural arrangements’. Cote (2001) further suggests that ‘non-economic’ outcomes such as improved health or sense of well-being, while not readily measurable, do ultimately add to the overall economic development of a country simply through improved efficiency and greater economic output. Baptiste (2001, p. 198) also argues that human capital theory in educational practice and policy is limited, mechanistic and takes no account of the social nature of the individual. He sees educational programs ‘wedded to human capital theory’ as ‘apolitical, adaptive and individualistic, and refers to the ‘social bankruptcy’ of human capital approaches which seek to ignore the social connections and networks humans bring to the learning process.

What is social capital?

The key concepts of social capital have been propounded by theorists such as Bourdieu (1985) Coleman (1988) and Putnam (1995). Bourdieu, viewed social capital as containing two essential elements; firstly, the social relations people have which give them access to resources, and secondly, the quality and amount of resources available (Pope, 2003). Coleman (1988) took a functionalist approach to social capital which he referred to as, ‘obligations, expectations, trust, information potential, norms and effective sanctions, authority relations, appropriable social organizations, and social networks’ (PRI Project, 2003, p. 6). Putnam expanded upon Coleman’s idea and defined social capital as, ‘features of social organisation, such as trust, norms and networks’ (1995, in PRI Project, 2003, p. 6). Field (2003, in Stevens, 2005, p.1) states that social capital can be succinctly described as, ‘relationships matter’. Field (2003) emphasised the importance of the connections that people make and the networks these connections relate to. Balatti, Black and Falk (2006, p.6) define social capital developed through adult education as, ‘changes… which lead to more involvement in society’.

The importance of Social Capital to Adult Education and Training

While acknowledging the difficulties inherent in trying to add an extra dimension to adult education in terms of accreditation and reporting, McHugh (2007) calls for new adult education polices which take account of the role of social capital; its presence and value. Golding (2007, p. 13) suggests that while social capital and lifelong learning are different concepts, together they can be, ‘mutually reinforcing’. This strengthens the notion that TAFE can play a fundamental role in the development of the ‘hidden’ or unmeasured outcomes of education. As Schuller (2001) argues, social capital should be seen as complementary to other areas of policy, rather than oppositional or indeed, inconsequential.  When considering the importance of acknowledging the social capital returns possible in adult education, Feinstein and Hammond (2004, p.199) argue that while research in education has produced a great deal of information on the ‘economic returns’ of adult education, ‘there is far less hard evidence on those returns to learning that are not primarily economic’.  Significantly, Townsend refers to the transformative nature of adult education and advocates the need for recognition of social capital alongside human capital as a valued outcome of educational programs.

How can social capital be measured?

Perhaps because of the difficulties of defining the intangible facets of social capital, measuring it is not generally pursued. As Golding (2007, p. 13) points out, ‘it is…difficult to measure social capital quantitatively or to attribute it as a direct outcome of learning’. This is especially the case when it is seen as a by-product of learning which comes ‘free’ (Golding, 2007).  As Cote (2001.p.31) states, much of what is relevant to social capital is ‘tacit and relational, defying easy measurement and codification’. However, as the research indicates, social capital does appear to be a significant outcome of engagement in adult educational programs such as those offered by TAFE. Diagram 1 highlights the potential returns of both human capital and social capital. The imbalance may be attributed to the richness of social capital outcomes unmeasured but perhaps ultimately outweighing the more tangible human capital outcomes in terms of personal and social value.


Educational policies which are primarily economically driven by productivity demands have a one-dimensional human capital approach. As such they are limited in scope and vision. Inclusive social capital approaches however, provide a more comprehensive picture of the gains that are actually taking place in adult education today, gains which are both pecuniary and non-pecuniary, but equally important and equally deserving of recognition. In promoting the need for recognition of the multi layered outcomes of adult education and training, there should be no suggestion that human capital is undervalued, on the contrary, it is an important gain for all participants, especially those wishing to enter the workforce or upgrade competitive workforce skills. However, the research suggests that there is a need for social capital to be recognised, valued, encouraged and accounted for in program development, delivery and evaluation.

Theresa Millman is a Doctoral Candidate at the School of Education at the University of Wollongong. She is also a Lecturer in Academic Skills at both UOW and The University of Sydney.


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Balatti, J, Black, S & and Falk, I. (2009). A new social capital learning paradigm for adult literacy: Partnerships, policy and pedagogy, Australian Government Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Commonwealth of Australia, NCVER, Adelaide.

Coleman, J.S 1988, ‘Social capital in the Creation of Human Capital’, The American Journal of Sociology, 94.

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Pope, J. (2003).  Social capital and social capital indicators: A reading list, Working Paper Series No. 1, Public Health Information Development Unit, Commonwealth of Australia

Putnam, R 1995, ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social capital’, Journal of Democracy 6 (1) 65-78.

Schuller, T. ( n.d). The Complementary Roles of Human and Social Capital, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Social Capital: Building on a Network-Based Approach, Draft Discussion Paper, PRI Project, Canada, October, 2003.

Stevens, R. (2005). What is Social Capital? How can it be measured? What are the implications of social capital for education? Paper presented to a conference of the Australian Association of Research in Education, Parramatta, NSW.

Watts, A.G, Sweet, R, Haines, C & McMahon., M. (2006).  ‘International Symposium on Career Development and Public Policy: Synthesis of Country Papers’, Australian Journal of Career Development, 15 (3).




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