A hallmark of recent higher education policy in developed economies is the move towards quasi-markets involving greater student choice and provider competition, underpinned by cost-sharing policies. This paper examines the idealizations and illusions of student choice and marketization in higher education policy in England, although the overall conclusions have relevance for other countries whose higher education systems are shaped by neoliberal thinking. First, it charts the evolution of the student-choice rationale through an analysis of government commissioned reports, white papers, and legislation, focusing on policy rhetoric and the purported benefits of increasing student choice and provider competition. Second, the paper tests the predictions advanced by the student-choice rationale—increased and wider access, improved institutional quality, and greater provider responsiveness to the labour market—and finds them largely not met. Finally, the paper explores how conceptual deficiencies in the student-choice model explain why the idealization of student choice has largely proved illusionary. Government officials have narrowly conceptualized students as rational calculators primarily weighing the economic costs and benefits of higher education and the relative quality of institutions and programs. There is little awareness that student choices are shaped by several other factors as well and that these vary considerably by social background. The paper concludes that students’ choices are socially constrained and stratified, reproducing and legitimating social inequality.
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