This article is intended as a contribution to the debate on the changing landscape of higher education in the United Kingdom. It challenges the notion that the spread of bureaucratic rationality and the rise of corporate culture have invariably resulted in a loss of meaning in academic life. Drawing upon the work of Onora O'Neill, Max Weber and Jürgen Habermas, the article argues for a more measured response to calls for greater accountability in higher education. The function of university mission groups is also examined, particularly in respect of their role in discursively producing notions of superiority and inferiority in the sector. The authors suggest that it is as much the machinations of influential university mission groups as the ‘iron cage’ of societal rationalisation that have brought about a perceived loss of freedom in academic life.