The changing value of higher education as a currency of opportunity

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2 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose: The worldwide expansion of higher education participation has destabilised the value of higher education as a currency of opportunity. An increasing number of graduates are experiencing the precarity of unemployment, under-employment and low salaries. This study aimed to investigate how university students in China understand and respond to the changing relationship between higher education and career opportunities.

Design/methodology/approach: The research team conducted 100 in-depth interviews with final-year undergraduates at one elite and one lower-tier university in a metropolitan city in Guangdong Province.

Findings: The students were acutely aware of fierce competition in the graduate labour market. When asked “what matters most” for post-graduation career prospects, they identified elite universities and high-status fields of study as “traditional” currencies of opportunity. Nonetheless, to stand out in a competitive environment, they perceived a growing need to supplement higher education credentials through university experiences (internships, student governance, study abroad programmes), party membership, personal connections and (overseas) postgraduate education. Moreover, in a “race to the top”, they discussed how qualitatively distinctive university experiences and elite postgraduate education are “new” currencies of opportunity for high-status professional employment.

Originality/value: The study demonstrates how intensified competition for graduate employment can result in an “opportunity trap”. The students were participating in an “arms race” to accumulate positional advantages for their post-graduation careers. The net impact of such efforts on a systemic level is to create an upward spiral in what students are expected to do in preparation for their post-graduation careers and further destabilise the value of higher education as a currency of opportunity. Copyright © 2020 Emerald Publishing Limited.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)42-54
JournalAsian Education and Development Studies
Issue number1
Early online dateJun 2020
Publication statusPublished - 03 Jan 2022


Wright, E., & Wei, H. (2022). The changing value of higher education as a currency of opportunity. Asian Education and Development Studies, 11(1), 42-54. doi: 10.1108/AEDS-08-2019-0120


  • Higher education
  • Graduate employment
  • Positional competition
  • Opportunity trap
  • China


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