Universities might aspire to teaching excellence, but do they enable academic teachers to make good teaching decisions? Using a critical realist perspective, a qualitative interview study in England and Australia explored academics’ experiences of teaching decisions and their responses to strategic, institutional and departmental teaching policy and planning. Complex and contradictory conditions that challenged academics’ experiences of teaching and prevented effective decision-making were found. The paper identifies aspects of university functioning that act to prevent the achievement of teaching excellence. It argues that excellence in teaching requires coherent and integrated approaches and commitment right across the institution. For this to happen, universities need to consider how stated strategic learning and teaching ambitions are communicated, implemented, supported and, importantly, how they are understood and enacted throughout all levels and areas of the organisation, including many that hitherto do not consider they have a role in learning and teaching.