This article argues that there is an urgent need to emphasise the role of the academic as an important actor in the study of policy implementation in higher education. It asserts that research into higher education is distinctive in adopting an ‘over-socialised˚s conception of men and women. To demonstrate the actor's importance in the understanding of change the article draws on the results of an ethnographic single-site case study of NewU, a post-1992 university. The locus of the study was the developing ‘mass˚s model of higher education and curricular characteristics associated with that, particularly the credit framework, the constellation of features related to and facilitated by the assignment of credit to assessed learning, considered in a context of relative resource decline and increasing student numbers. The study highlighted the ways in which academics respond to changing contexts and take actions which have the effect, intentionally and otherwise, of changing policy outcomes. A greater understanding of academics' behaviour can be achieved by moving beyond the essentialist position adopted by many higher education researchers which gives explanatory priority to the epistemological characteristics of disciplines. Researchers also need to take account of the organisational, cultural and ideological characteristics of particular contexts and the interests and understandings of actors in them.