Changes in higher education provide a backdrop against which to explore developments in professional education and social work education in particular. These changes are examined from a policy perspective, with a focus on events which signify value shifts in expectations about higher education. Higher education up to the 1940s was described as having ‘evolved by drift and policy accretion, the result of centuries of disjointed incrementalism’. Universities offered discipline-based degrees and postgraduate research opportunities to an elite minority. Barrett and Fudge identified the time when political power changes hands as a paradigm change in the policy-making process, as a different value system informs government intent. The period since 1979 has been marked by increasing intervention by governments determined to reduce public spending. The early 1990s, and a change in leadership of the Conservative government, did not see the advent of new policy trajectories in higher education, but rather a continued vigour in implementing policies initiated under ‘Thatcherism’.