Universities are at a pivotal point in their history and are undergoing dramatic changes. One of the more significant of these changes is the move towards instrumental programmes of learning, as manifest for instance in workplace and work-based learning. This paper argues that this trend threatens the existence of the liberal university, where knowledge is pursued predominantly for its own sake. The paper identifies four dominant discourses in higher education and suggests that these discourses co-exist with one another, and are sometimes dominant, at other times recessive. It argues that the trend to a post-industrialised labour market has seen the emergence of a vocationalised discourse in higher education, which stresses the instrumental at the expense of the liberal.