This article argues that good practice in teaching and learning in the English-speaking world may be compromised by structural changes in the higher education system. The impact of these changes is, however, affected by leadership practices and working cultures at the departmental level. These can, it is argued, assist in the development of 'deeper' teaching and learning practices even in a context which may be seen as unfavourable to them. Rejecting simplistic notions of transformational leadership and organisational cultural engineering, the article identifies activity systems at the local, departmental, level as the central loci of changes in approaches to and recurrent practices in teaching and learning. Desirable change is most likely to be achieved in collective and collaborative ways, which means that change processes are contingent and contextualised, and that outcomes are unpredictable and fuzzy. The data in this article come from in-depth interviews with academics in England and Canada; from one author's previous studies; and from literatures on faculty's work environments in English-speaking countries.