Isolation, insecurity, incomprehension
: teacher agency and teaching excellence on a British transnational campus

  • Giovanna COMERIO

Student thesis: EdD Thesis


Drawing on Roy Bhaskar’s notions of causal powers and individual position-practice system (praxis), this research explores the teaching agency that academics on a British branch campus in China identify for themselves when trying to implement their idea of teaching excellence. The two foci of this study are teaching excellence and teacher’s agency as they are shaped by the internationalisation and ‘neoliberalisation’ of higher education. In particular, the debate on the nature of ‘teaching excellence’ in contemporary higher education emphasizes its neoliberal origins and its confusion with the concept of ‘teaching quality’, while the debate on teachers’ agency focusses on the external resources and personality traits that allow teachers to devise strategies to achieve their goals, or not.
Qualitative content analysis of interviews with ten academics shows that their definition of teaching excellence is not related to the ongoing debate, but to their own position-practice system. The participants insist on what I have termed the ‘dignity of the role’, which ultimately requires them to earn and deserve students’ respect. Teachers try to gain this respect through ‘purposeful benevolence’, which is a friendly and caring attitude informing their pedagogy. Furthermore, the participants identify two distinct spaces for teaching excellence, the campus and the classroom. At campus level, they see the impact of marketisation and customerization of higher education but not of internationalization of pedagogies or curriculum, and do not feel academics’ agency has an impact. The second space is the classroom, for them their only agentic space for implementing what they consider excellent teaching. Classroom agency can be constrained, however, as teachers fear students might misunderstand and report them to ‘the authorities’, and teaching resources are not always accessible.
In conclusion, the perceived impossibility of agency at campus level, paired with the perceived opacity of the socio-cultural context, leads to feelings of insecurity inside and outside the classroom. These feelings seem related to the participants’ perceptions of the limited range of opportunities they have within their position-practice systems and might constitute a ‘plausible explanation’ of what they describe as their limited teaching agency.
Date of AwardMar 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Nottingham
SupervisorDerek Irwin (Supervisor)


  • International branch campus
  • Teacher agency
  • Teaching excellence
  • Critical Realism
  • Qualitative Content Analysis

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