The expansion of higher education throughout the OECD – and beyond – is both necessary and desirable. But it is costly, and faces competing imperatives for public spending. Higher education finance is therefore salient to an extent that is not yet fully appreciated in all countries, and is also immensely sensitive politically. This paper sets out the core lessons for financing higher education deriving from economic theory and puts them alongside lessons from country experience. The UK reforms announced in 2004 are assessed against the backdrop of those two elements. A concluding section briefly maps out unfinished business.