Contextualizing University Rankings and World-Class Status in Chinese Universities through Commensuration

Dr Ryan Allen, Chapman University, USA

Original Research:

Allen, R. M. (2019). Commensuration of the globalised higher education sector: how university rankings act as a credential for world-class status in ChinaCompare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 1-19.

Research Highlights

The rapid internationalizations of higher education globally over the last few decades have had profound impacts on domestic sectors around the world. While global mobility and partnerships have reached all-time highs, there have been some resulting growing pains. Considering higher education on the international stage is more complex and everchanging than at any time before. To make sense of these complexities, actors in the sector rely on indicators to provide key information. Oftentimes, these indicators are built from a set of metrics that have been formulated by another agency or institution and then organized into a ranking.

This act of taking a complex idea and simplifying it down to a set of metrics is known as commensuration. Commensuration reduces the expertise a stakeholder needs for decision-making as numbers and metrics have been lionized as objective truths. This process provides an appearance of objectivity because it is seen as a type of science. Even as these types of metrics are met with critique, they have inundated decision-making bureaucracies across the world, especially in higher education.

University rankings are one of the most common examples of commensuration in the sector, as these schemes attempt to define quality or excellence in education through a simple indicator. But studies on commensuration have mainly been considered in Western settings, namely the United States and the United Kingdom. However, commensuration is useful in contextualizing the global higher education sector and the obsession with the world-class university, a concept that is often quoted but difficult to define in the complex and expansive landscape.

Chinese Universities and Commensuration

Chinese universities have been at the forefront of the internationalization trends in higher education, explicitly chasing world-class status over the last few decades. Because of these efforts, commensuration is especially useful when studying Chinese universities. During six months of field research in China in 2017, I explored how university rankings have become commensurate measures of the world-class university concept in China. I visited campuses, attended conferences and classes, and met with countless students, researchers, academics, and administrators. For this analysis, I relied on formal interviews with 48 administrators and professors at Chinese universities.

The interviewees in my sample had difficulties in providing a consensus definition of a world-class university. Despite claiming to hear the term used almost “every day,” the conception was still amorphous. Some described excellent students, others mentioned impactful research, and a few used examples of the global elite like “Harvard” or “Cambridge.” Using a word frequency query, though, showed that the most used descriptor was “rankings,” as seen in the following illustration. Even when considering a multitude of definitions, university rankings were still implicitly (or explicitly, in some cases) connected to the elite status.

Word Cloud of Interviewees’ Conceptions of World-Class Universities

Macintosh HD:Users:ryanmallen555:Desktop:Screen Shot 2019-06-20 at 3.18.48 PM.png
Note: Common words such as “like” and “the” have been removed and stem words have been grouped together.

The group most often mentioned four specific rankings: Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings; Times Higher Education (THE), Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), and US and World News Report (US News). The makeup of each of these rankings is slightly different, but they all have strong considerations for research. Although, three also had reputational components that sparked ire from many faculty members in the sample. Encapsulating the complaint, one senior professor said, “Among its many flaws, one of them is the halo effect, so people will say, ‘Cambridge has a great department of X,’ even if they don’t have one. These places have higher reputations, whether they actually teach a program or not.”

The four common schemes most often mentioned each rank institutions in strict ordinal form. The ordinal rank offers institutions a proxy for world-class status. While not all the interviewees believed there were strict cutoffs for this concept, 19 gave explicit points that they or their institution would use for a proxy.  There was some variation in cutoffs, which can be seen in the following chart, including simply being included in the rankings. However, the top-100 mark was the most stated answer of the group, especially for those already in the more elite segment of the Chinese higher education hierarchy (C9 League).

The specific cutoff for determining world-class universities by university type

Macintosh HD:Users:ryanmallen555:Dropbox:Dissertation:Parts:Chapter 4:Chart 2 world class and ranking.png
Source: Qualitative interviews conducted in this research.

A senior professor with an academic focus on rankings encapsulated this finding, “The idea of world-class, it’s hard to define . . . But for practical usage, actually the top-100 is more or less agreed as world-class university. Not everyone agrees, but it’s a much more agreed than the definition itself. It’s much more difficult to get a definition for world-class university itself than the practical use from ranking. So, top-100 is more or less.”

Even as some of the faculty members and administrators argued against using specific cutoffs, almost all of them agreed that rankings impacted various actions by their university, especially in regards to institutional partnerships. Overall, 36 of the 48 respondents claimed rankings have a connection to decisions related to partnerships. Even those who argued that their first priority is related to familiarly or other points, admitted that rankings play a factor institutionally. “We start with those whom we have personal connections… [But] of course everybody want to befriend those highly ranked institution,” conceded one junior faculty member.

Some of the respondents were quite open with this commensurate proxy to rankings. “Because [we are a] world-class oriented university and it aims highly to only pursue highly ranking universities all over the world… If the universities were not highly ranked, we would not consider them to be partners,” said one mid-level administrator tasked with global outreach. Another administrator even admitted her institution was looking to sever ties with their long-standing partner abroad because the other university was not ranked high enough. Others also claimed that their administrations would not support requests for China Scholarship Council research funding abroad unless the host university was ranked within the top-100.

Research indicators are critical to university ranking metrics, meaning that as league table position becomes more important, pressures to publish will be even more burdensome. Almost all the academics in the study reported that their institutions were obsessed with highly cited indexes, such as the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI). Multiple respondents even made the same joke, calling the SSCI “stupid Chinese ideas.” Even those who claimed to not pay attention to the rankings reported pressures to publish in these highly cited journals. These indices are key metrics in the university rankings reported to be the most widely used by my respondents. 

There were some disparities in how actors perceived these pressures from internationalizations. Over half of the administrators did not report the pressures to publish, while a majority of the professors complained of increased pressures. The exceptions were late-career academics, who were split 50-50 on this topic. These disparities point to diverging awareness of the effects of internationalizations on the sector. It is likely that administrators and older, established academics do not face the full force of these burdens, as the younger, unproven faculty members have more expectations of producing in these international publications.

The research shows how university rankings offer a proxy for the world-class definition. While the commensuration concept has mostly been used in Western-focused studies, it is also useful for understanding the Chinese context and the sector’s intense focus on internationalizations. Commensuration is a powerful force within education, impacting decisions at all levels of the university. As the sector in China becomes more global and complex, stakeholders will continue to use indicators and metrics for a variety of decisions, such as evaluation of research agendas and institutional partnerships. Future work should continue to contextualize China and other sectors through the understanding of the commensuration processes and their outcomes.  

Author Bio

Ryan M. Allen is an assistant professor at Chapman University’s Donna Ford Attallah College of Educational Studies. He primarily works with the college’s doctoral program partnered with Shanghai Normal University. His research focuses on internationalizations of higher education, EdTech, academic publishing, and the East Asian region. He serves on the Executive Board of the Study Abroad and International Student SIG within the Comparative and International Education Society, where he shares his passion for supporting international students and promoting study abroad. You can find Dr. Allen’s daily musings on Twitter at @PoliticsAndEd.

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