If I were to ask an academic, a student, a politician and a university vice-chancellor what is the purpose of Higher Education then I would probably get four different answers. If we restricted their answers to; wealth generation, subject engagement, personal transformation and critical citizenship then I would probably get different orders of priority, although all four might agree on the main priority.
As the numbers of students in higher education increase and the cost of going into higher education also increases then more students are taking a strategic/rational approach. Most students are not learning for learning's sake. Many students see a university degree as a stepping stone to a career, this is something you have to do, and you take the path of least resistance by taking a degree in a subject that you engage with most that will lead you towards your career goal. There is one group of students where financial considerations are less likely to be the most important factor in deciding to study and those are the lifelong learners who often take a course for their personal enjoyment and to broaden their knowledge.
The university vice-chancellor is also driven by the need for financial security and so students are transformed into customers and higher education into a market where the product that is being sold are the degrees. The demand depends on the institutional reputation also defined within league tables, which also depend on student/customer feedback.
The current educational policy aims to widen participation in higher education and to increase student numbers. Underlying this is the belief in a knowledge based economy and that a successful economy requires a better educated work-force. So again the economic priority is central.
Academics are the least likely to consider the financial consequences as the most important but they still understand that this is a driving force in the environment in which they are engaged.