This article examines a transformative moment in the history of British higher education. After the First World War, student numbers were boosted by the arrival of large numbers of ex-servicemen. Their access to university was facilitated by the government-funded Scheme for the Higher Education of Ex-Service Students, which provided grants to nearly 28,000 students between 1918 and 1923. The article offers the first sustained historical analysis of the workings and impact of this programme, which constituted a major development in state support for individual students. Our study contextualizes these measures by showing how the war was memorialized at universities and by tracing the changing nature of student life – covering themes such as gender relations and the activities of student societies. Material from case-study institutions in London and the North East of England is used to add specific depth to discussions of the national picture. As a whole, the article makes an original contribution to the wider literature on the First World War's impact on British society.