This article relates changes in higher education (HE) and research in East Asian societies to recent trends in political economy and, in particular, the reorientation of developmental states (DSs) in the region. The DS is oriented to catch-up competitiveness and, as the horizon of development shifts, so do its appropriate institutional forms and strategies. Catch-up competitiveness is guided by economic imaginaries, often linked to geoeconomic, geopolitical, and broader societal imaginaries, whose hegemony depends on particular discursive and disciplinary practices. The shift in the roles of HE and research is related to the reorientation of DSs from export-oriented, investment-led growth to knowledge-intensive, investment-led growth, supplemented in some cases by efforts to create international financial hubs to exploit a global trend towards financialisation. These themes are explored through comparison of selected East Asian economies/societies. The article ends with some general conclusions about the state’s continuing role in HE and its internationalisation in the region.