Insights from the marketing and education literature are combined to analyse government rationales and mechanisms related to the positioning of contemporary students as consumers and to assess the impact on the process and outcomes of education, on the professional practices of faculty and on widening participation. Pierre Bourdieu's conceptual framework is applied to analyse how consumer mechanisms are mediated by the organisational cultures and practices within universities. These theoretical insights are combined with data from different national contexts to indicate positive outcomes. However, the organisational context of higher education, gamesmanship and outdated marketing relations have also led to the opposite of what policy makers have aspired to. We show how consumerism also promotes passive learning, threatens academic standards, and entrenches academic privilege. The paper contributes to scholarship on consumerism in sectors which are subject to changing relations between state regulation and market forces, and offers policy and management insights.