In this article, I examine the educational purposes of higher education in terms of the societal outcomes of educating students through higher education. Based on an analysis of the first 80 volume of Higher Education, published from 1972 to 2020, I argue that discussions of societal educational purposes were dominated by authors from the Anglophone, global North and these authors were more likely to write as if the educational purposes under discussion were relevant to all higher education systems regardless of national context. This tendency increased over time. The overall models of the educational purposes in each contribution differed in terms of whether they focused on single, multiple, or differentiated sets of educational purposes. I argue that as higher education has become increasingly stratified, there has been less discussion of whether there are differences in the societal outcomes served by different forms of higher education. This is problematic because it obscures the potential differences in the educational purposes of higher education in different societies and the extent to which inequalities are perpetuated by differences in the forms of higher education to which students gain access. In order to address this, I argue there is a need to move away from a focus on the educational purposes of the institutional form of ‘the University’ to focus on the educational purposes that are served by different configurations of higher education systems.