Purpose This paper marks the centenary year of W. Ross Ashby (1903-1972), one of the founders of the interdisciplinary subject of cybernetics. It uses Ashby’s cybernetics to construct a framework for understanding some of the features that presently characterise British higher education. Design/methodology/approach The contents of Ashby’s 1956 book, An Introduction to Cybernetics, are outlined. Cybernetic concepts, principles, and laws are then applied to some of the features that presently characterise UK Universities: growth in student numbers, the modularisation of curricula, concerns over academic standards, and bureaucracy. Findings The paper finds Ashby’s writings to be critical to understanding the nature of many of the contemporary debates about UK higher education. A diagnosis and critical evaluation of the policy impetus to increase student numbers and modularise curricula is supplied. A cybernetic analysis in support of the current concerns over academic standards is provided. The paper demonstrates why the current higher education quality assurance regime produces a bureaucratised university. Research limitations / implications The paper’s framework is supported by an analysis of available national statistics and other secondary evidence, but more detailed, cross-comparative, longitudinal studies of the UK labour market and educational attainment are required. Practical implications Given the economic perspective adopted by policy makers – the paper identifies three reasons why the current policy of expanding UK higher education may be flawed. Value The paper marks the centenary year of W. Ross Ashby by demonstrating how his writings can supply a framework for understanding the current debates about UK higher education policy.