Theses Doctoral

Global Forces, Local Perceptions: Measuring the Normalization Effects of University Rankings in China

Allen, Ryan Michael

China has become one of the most important players in the landscape of higher education worldwide. The nation is home to the largest tertiary sector in the world, is the leading sender of international students, the third largest receiver of international students, and its government has aggressively pushed internationalization policies at its top universities. Policymakers and educational stakeholders in China have been implementing these strategies in order to chase world-class status for the nation’s universities. While the world-class university concept is ubiquitous across the globe, there has been no agreed upon definition for these elite institutions. In China, though, rankings have been adopted to make sense of this elite status. This dissertation explores the impact that university rankings have had on the Chinese higher education system.
There has been considerable research on university rankings in China, but some gaps remain. Studies have explored Chinese universities’ ambitions for world-class status, but rankings are often marginalized within these studies. Studies on the impact of university rankings have mostly focused on their connection to Chinese international students, as league tables have key tools in decision-making for this population. Conversely, research that has focused on domestic students has emphasized geographic biases in university admissions and affluence advantages in the system, and usually has not engaged with global or local rankings. To fill these gaps, my study centers university rankings within the intersection of the local and global settings.
I used two original datasets to engage this exploration of how university rankings impact Chinese universities. First, I interviewed 48 faculty and staff members from the elite spectrum of the Chinese higher education sector. Through the interviews, I investigated how the concept of the world-class university relates to university rankings in China. I confirmed that these league tables have provided a concrete, commensurate indicator for decision-makers to make sense of the global higher education hierarchy, with specific cut-offs to be considered world-class. Further, I examined the intersection between global ranking ambitions of Chinese universities coupled with stringent control from the central government through the striving model. I found that while international forces have had considerable impact on these institutions, local characteristics are highly filtered through a Chinese domestic lens, as governmental distinction has dominated the focus of elite universities. Concurrently, I surveyed over 900 students from across Chinese universities in an exploration of ranking familiarity and knowledge. Through multivariate analysis, I found that students from affluent classes, elite universities, and those with study abroad ambitions were all more familiar with rankings. However, in an actual test of knowledge, I discovered that elite university students actually did worse in regards to global ranking knowledge, while the associations to affluence and study abroad ambition disappeared. The findings in this research have centered rankings in a comparative perspective of higher education in China and the lessons learned can be adapted to future studies in other societies or sectors.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Comparative and International Education
Thesis Advisors
Pizmony-Levy, Oren
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 7, 2018