By means of a systematic comparison of three countries we investigate the origins and conditions for the diffusion of student evaluation of teaching (SET). We found that (a) SET is present cross-nationally; (b) SET was initiated in the US during the 1950s by students and adopted in the 1970s by universities, while German and Colombian universities started implementing SET during the 2000s; and that (c) common cultural elements for adopting SET include increasing accountability, competition and student empowerment. Concerns for academic freedom in Germany and faculty diversity in the US influence SET's diffusion and implementation. Our findings test the neo-institutional proposition about the diffusion of similar evaluation practices into university teaching. We also extend theoretical interpretations of the transfer of practices by positioning SET in a global culture that has recently been aiming to balance technocratic measurements of teaching with local concerns about academic freedom and increasing concerns about diversity.