Higher education (HE) is of considerable importance to policymakers across Europe. Indeed, it is viewed as a key mechanism for achieving a range of economic, social and political goals. Nevertheless, despite this prominence within policy, we have no clear understanding of the extent to which conceptualisations of ‘the student’ are shared across the continent. To start to redress this gap, this paper explores four key aspects of contemporary higher education students’ lives, considering the extent to which they can be considered as, variously, consumers, workers, family members and political actors. On the basis of this evidence, it argues that, despite assumptions on the part of European policymakers that there are now large commonalities in the experiences of students across Europe – evident in pronouncements about Erasmus mobility and the operations of the European Higher Education Area – significant differences exist both between, and within, individual nation-states.