The marketization of higher education entails a radical reshaping of the educational relationship as one in which the lecturer is recast as a professional service worker, implicitly or explicitly tasked with ensuring the satisfaction of fee-paying students as sovereign consumers. What does an organizational discourse of high customer satisfaction mean for the emotional experiences of lecturers on the frontline? In this article, we conduct a psychosocial analysis of academics’ experiences of interacting with students in a marketized higher education context. We illustrate how institutional imperatives readily align with lecturers’ internalised professional duty of care for students who are discursively constructed as highly anxious and vulnerable. At the same time, changing power differentials wrought by marketization heighten the likelihood of emotional responses in the relationship that are intense, spontaneous, and sometimes involuntary – and thus appear replete with unconscious meanings. Informed by Freudian psychoanalysis, we illustrate how academics enact various defence mechanisms in response to unconscious feelings of dependence, subordination, vulnerability and resentment of the student as an authority figure. We conclude that organisational imperatives to ‘corporately care’ for students have the unintended consequence of generating acute ambivalence that drastically intensifies the psychological demands on teaching staff.