This paper examines the distribution of students in tertiary education across six broad cognate areas of study. Using data collected by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics since 1999, it suggests that there is neither uniformity across countries, nor obvious signs of convergence toward uniformity, either globally or regionally. This empirical evidence is placed in a context that views institutions as complex, self-organising systems, capable of selecting those external stimuli that will affect their development, and ignoring those that will not. This view of organisations emphasises the importance of their histories in shaping what they are likely to do in the future, with national systems of higher education, for example, showing strong tendencies to continue past patterns into the future. These observations have important implications for how educational institutions are managed, and how policy is developed.