University Impact Rankings by SDG: Sustainable Cities and Communities


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by Julie Wilkens McMahon


The recent plague of bushfires that has swept across the Australian continent have drawn fresh scrutiny on global efforts to address climate change. New technologies and innovative research are needed to handle such a global crisis, and higher education has an important role to play in these endeavours.

However, higher education’s purpose in society is greater than its efforts to understand and curb damage to our fragile environment. The full role of a university has been debated throughout time, but few would argue against a version that incorporates a mission to positively impact the lives of its students and society overall. A university’s ability to succeed with such a comprehensive and wide-sweeping mandate is more difficult to measure than a simple tally of the number of students graduating or patents granted each year. The absence of many universally accepted methods of quantifiably measuring a university’s societal impact has added to the difficulty of assessing success.


University Rankings

The publication of the first US News and World Report issue introduced the concept of national university rankings over 30 years ago and global-ranking systems have risen in acceptance over the last decade. The most renowned of the global-ranking systems include Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, the Quacqarelli-Symonds (QS) rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). Although all three of these ranking systems are measuring different aspects of a university’s performance, all three focus between 60 to 80% on research-related metrics.

Higher education rankings such as THE’s World University Rankings provide a relatively focused measure of university quality, utilising narrow parameters to emphasise specific performance metrics such as citations, research productivity and student-to-faculty ratios. These rankings are useful in order to assess particular areas of achievement as determined by the chosen metrics. While university rankings that focus on research-intensive performance have proliferated in the higher education sector, measuring impact is a less common, and an arguably more difficult, endeavour.


University Impact Rankings Methodology

In 2019, following over two years of consultation with industry experts and higher education leaders, THE created the University Impact Rankings (UIR), an innovative effort to measure actual performance of universities on a global level as they address complex developmental challenges. Recognising the inherent difficulties in measuring efforts to cure a myriad of social ills, THE utilised the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the framework for the rankings, adapting each SDG to a university’s activities.

Adopted by the United Nations Member States in 2015, the SDGs are a global rallying point to end poverty, protect the earth and promote peace and prosperity by 2030 and onwards. Organised into 17 separate goals, each one is a blueprint for a society that has eliminated poverty and other inequalities, while promoting efforts to preserve the environment. Addressing challenges from climate change to gender equality to health and well-being, the goals are simultaneously distinctive in their focus and comprehensively integrated with each other.

The UIR’s methodology measures four key factors of impact: Research, Stewardship, Outreach and Teaching. Firstly, while the UIR is less research-focused than the World University Rankings, research is still an integral aspect of the framework. An institution’s research impacts the world by providing direction: Why and how should changes in society be made? Secondly, a university’s abilities in using natural assets fairly and equitably shapes its impact on the world. Thirdly, the outreach efforts of an institution, whether on a local, regional, national or international level, amplifies the impact of its efforts. Finally, teaching has been integrated into the upcoming 2020 UIR as the ability to instruct the next generation to adopt sustainability is a natural extension of a university’s mission.

Institutions entering the THE University Impact Rankings have the option of selecting which of the SDGs to submit data for, and each SDG produces an individual ranking. Universities wishing to rank overall must submit data for at least four SDGs, one of which must be SDG 17, Partnership for the Goals. More democratic in nature than traditional world university ranking systems, the UIR allows universities with less resources to submit data and evidence for SDGs that align to their specific talents and goals rather than forcing them to submit across all 17 SDGs.

“THE created the University Impact Rankings (UIR), an innovative effort to measure actual performance of universities on a global level as they address complex developmental challenges. Recognising the inherent difficulties in measuring efforts to cure a myriad of social ills, THE utilised the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the framework for the rankings, adapting each SDG to a university’s activities.”

2019 Results

A new ranking is an untested system but the UIR’s comprehensive approach, as well as its adoption of the universally accepted SDGs, appeared persuasive and a large number of universities responded positively. Initial hopes for participation by 100 universities were met and superseded when 561 global institutions from all continents bar Antarctica submitted data for the inaugural year.

Southeast Asia was represented by a select number of high performers in the Impact rankings, including several Hong Kong and Taiwanese universities, with the University of Hong Kong ranking at number 10 overall. ASEAN highlights in the 2019 UIR included Universiti Sains Malaysia at number 49 and Universitas Indonesia, which tied at 80. In total, nine ASEAN universities were represented in the top 200, including Khon Kaen University in Thailand and Ton Duc Thang University in Vietnam.


Moving Forward

The submission period for the 2020 UIR has recently closed, with results to be released at the THE Innovation & Impact Summit at the Swedish university KTH Royal Institute of Technology in late April. Expanded to include all 17 SDGs from the original 11 used in the inaugural ranking, expectations are high for increased participation.

The initial success of the rankings has confirmed the idea that a system recognising the efforts of universities that may lack the resources and reputation to perform well in traditional global rankings is valued and worthwhile. Acknowledging a university’s achievements in improving society is only one part of the UIR. By providing benchmarks and a spotlight on various universities’ accomplishments in making the world a better place, universities can lead by example and open up possibilities for cooperation, collaboration and imitation. Ultimately, this sharing and promotion will lead to new innovations that can help the human race move forward in its efforts to solve complex global challenges. Regardless of whether these challenges include bushfires and climate change, gender equality or world hunger, the higher education sector has shown it can play an integral role in meeting them head on.

Julie Wilkens McMahon is the Regional Director (APAC) for Times Higher Education (THE).

This article first appeared in the print version of HESB Issue #07. Click here to read the full, online issue.

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Mr Ho Swee Huat

Mr Ho Swee Huat is the Founder and Managing Director of Abacus Assets Advisors Pte Ltd. Before starting the company, he had an established career in the banking industry, with 20 years of experience in Singapore, Hong Kong and New York.

He was an Independent Director and Chairman of the Audit Committee of CapitaCommercial Trust Management LTD from 2004 to 2013.

He is the current Chairman of Autism Association (Singapore) which he co-founded with a group of parents in 1992. He is also Vice-Chairman of Eden School, a special school for children with autism.

Mr Ho holds a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a Liberal Arts degree in Economics from Hamilton College, USA.

He has been a member of the Board of the Foundation since its incorporation.