Universities face a tension from two urgent pressures they face, firstly to demonstrate that they deliver value for society in return for public investments, and secondly to demonstrate their responsibility by introducing strategic management to demonstrate to their funders that they meet their goals. In this special issue, we explore the ways in which these tensions play out in practice, as universities facing ‘mission overload’ in turn try to develop additional regional development missions, highlighting three findings. Firstly, there can be no one-size-fits all idea of a ‘third university mission’ alongside teaching and research because engagement is so context-dependent. Secondly, universities and regions need much better understand their own contexts to improve their performance rather than seeking simplistic best-practice third mission instruments elsewhere. Finally, higher education ministries should recognise that diversity in higher education is critical to delivering societal benefits, and uncritically believing in the power of world class universities.