This paper addresses a central paradox that affects the nature of the student experience in the UK. On the one hand, the marketisation of higher education, with its associated emphasis on performativity indicators, may be seen to have reduced students to numbers, with the attendant consequence that the affective domain of studying and learning has been lost. On the other hand, there is more attention given to student feelings than was ever the case in the past and questions about student satisfaction have become more prominent. This paper will explore this paradox using empirical data gathered from a longitudinal study of ‘non-traditional’ students at one ancient university in Scotland. We indicate the ways in which the tension between the technicist spaces of the neo-liberal university and its empathetic, caring spaces are mediated by students as they make their way through their degrees. We argue that caring relationships with staff are of central importance to students’ well-being and success at university, and that students actively seek to construct support when and where they need it.