In this paper, we outline how the literature on phenomenography, specifically Marton and Booth (1997), and the literature that adopts a ‘critical approach’, specifically Friere (1996), can be brought together to help us to understand the barriers that face students and teachers in engaging in learning and teaching in higher education. Our attempt is motivated by a wish to relate the different foci of each perspective. We argue that the phenomenographic literature has been successful in suggesting theoretically informed and research-based ways in which learning environments might be structured to improve the quality of students’ learning. However, it is largely silent on the extent to which barriers to learning can be due to structural inequalities outside of the learning environment. More critical approaches foreground these structural inequalities but their suggestions for teaching and learning practices are often weak. In bringing these two perspectives together, we develop a model of academic engagement that takes into account both experiential and structural influences on the quality of teaching and learning in higher education.