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The idea of the ‘creative city’ has become increasingly popular over recent decades in Australia, with planners and policy-makers connecting popular ideas about economic development to the ‘soft’ attributes of cities, such as liveability, innovation and creativity. The espousal of these ideas through policy has seen cities increasingly being branded as innately creative while seeking to attract ‘creative’ classes. We discuss how these ideas are worked through the strategic operations of city-State governments, using the example of universities to illustrate how planning emphasizes the training and retention of students as part of a creative class in utero. We detail deliberative efforts around student attraction and retention that form broader multi-level partnership efforts at consolidating economic development. We report on empirical research involving a hundred interviews, with community and city-level key actors, and the analysis of policy and State budget documentation. We find that universities, in partnership with city and State governments and private partners, tactically draw on the liveability of their cities to attract students as part of a broader effort to attain stronger positions within the creative economy.