By looking at the case of English higher education, this paper addresses the tension between external isomorphic forces and the heterogeneous nature of knowledge exchange activities at individual universities. It adopts an ‘institutional logic’ perspective to explain the heterogeneous pathways that organisations take in response to external environments and their own strategic choices. It draws from qualitative documentary analysis of the third mission institutional strategies of universities, as well as data from the Higher Education Business Community Interaction Survey, to better understand the complex and intertwined contexts of universities’ missions, strategies and perceived external environments. Against the ‘one-size-fit-all’ isomorphic pressures, each university creates its own approaches and models of third mission by targeting different areas of activities, partners and geographical areas, and by combining different set of missions, capabilities and resources. However, there is a significant variety in the extent to which individual higher education institutions can actually implement these strategies.