After defining ‘higher education’ in the light of UNESCO’s categories of ‘tertiary education’, the chapter reviews two different theorisations of its contributions: McMahon’s economic accounting, grounded in human capital theory, and institutional theory’s narrative of the social and cultural role of the sector. These approaches generate insights but not a comprehensive solution, each excluding the other as well as further insights from other disciplines. They also fail to grapple with national-cultural variations in the nature of states and the associated roles of higher education. In the face of the widespread tendency to simplify and reify higher education, the chapter moves to greater depth and complexity. No single answer or method covers this whole terrain. Conceptual frameworks should enable more, not less, inclusion and diversity. A heterogenous approach to the contributions problem includes multiple insights generated through differing geo-cognitive lenses, national-cultures and disciplines. The chapter takes the problem forward by arguing for (1) a distinction between the intrinsic functions of higher education in teaching/learning and research/knowledge, and its extrinsic functions when joined with other social sectors in the economy, society, polity and culture; (2) recognition of both individualised and collective contributions, in both the national and global scales; (3) a comprehensive approach that admits heterogeneity. We can readily observe higher education’s contributions through student learning, and knowledge, and these are foundational to most of its other roles. It is the extrinsic contributions of higher education, where most of the controversies lie, that pose the main difficulties. The sector is connected to most parts of society and it difficult or impossible to isolate its discrete causal effects, the ‘independence’ problem.