Drawing on a discursive analysis of policy texts – produced by government, business/employers’ organisations and staff and student unions – this paper investigates the ways in which students are constructed in contemporary English higher education policy. First, it contends that, contrary to assumptions made in the academic literature, students are not conceptualised as ‘empowered consumers’; instead their vulnerability is emphasised by both government and unions. However, whereas this vulnerability is attributed to processes of market reform within the union documents, for the government, it is a consequence of insufficient marketization. Second, it identifies other dominant discourses – namely that of ‘future worker’ and ‘hard-worker’. These articulate with extant debates about both the repositioning of higher education as an economic good, and the use of the ‘hard-working’ trope across other areas of social policy. Third, it shows that important differences are drawn between groups of students (related to their spatial positioning). For domestic students, this is largely with respect to whether they are deemed ‘hard-working’ or not. More extreme contrasts are drawn between international students, juxtaposing the ‘brightest and best’ with those who are considered ‘sham’. Finally, it argues that the figure of the ‘vulnerable’ student and ‘thwarted consumer’ feed into broader government narratives about its policy trajectory – legitimising contemporary reforms and excusing the apparent failure of previous policies.