This April saw the launch of the first ever Times Higher Education (THE) University Impact Rankings – the only global performance table that assesses the impact of higher education institutions against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The first iteration saw 562 universities from 81 countries across six continents take part, which indicates that there is significant interest in measuring sustainability within the educational sector. So why is this the case?
Here, we’ll look at how the THE rankings measure sustainable development and why impact reporting will become increasingly key to the future of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) around the world.
A key aim of the rankings was to make them as open and as accessible as possible.
The first step towards this was making the rankings open to all HEIs offering undergraduate programmes. The rankings were based on 11 of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which focus on global sustainability issues including poverty, climate action and gender equality.
Crucially, an HEI could submit data on as many or as few of the SDGs as they wanted, provided they also submit for the one compulsory SDG – SDG 17, revitalising global partnerships. The data submitted by universities was combined with existing data from Elsevier.
The rankings provide a showcase for the work that universities do in their communities, highlighting the differences they make to the world we live in. Within this framework, HEIs could focus on the areas of sustainability most relevant to them and their communities.
Each SDG was ranked individually as well as giving an overall score meaning smaller institutions could compete with larger, wealthier ones in their areas of expertise. The flexible and inclusive submission process and the measurement metrics that avoided wealth bias, created a level playing field for universities no matter their size.
The importance of demonstrating impact
The timing of the first iteration of the THE University Impact Rankings is no coincidence: across the HE sector the need to demonstrate impact is growing.
There are already universities disclosing their impact on society and the environment beyond academia and research by choice. Like many industries around the world, the HE sector is coming to understand that it has an impact on society and the environment through its operation and governance and that it can no longer shy away from such responsibility.
In the UK, Hong Kong and Australia, universities are required to report on their research impact on society and the environment. This means that they need to demonstrate how their research is making positive social change, for instance influencing policy making and change in practices and behaviour.
In 2019 every HEI should be acutely aware of its impact on society and the environment. Measuring that impact is becoming increasingly intertwined with two major considerations for universities – funding and attracting new students.
The financial future of HEIs is becoming more and more heavily tied to their demonstration of impact.
The weighting of impact in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) has risen from 20% to 25% since the last round of funding meaning proven progress towards sustainability related goals is more important to a university’s financial future than ever before. This is a global trend and one that will only get more important, especially now that it’s being measured by the THE University Impact rankings.
This is a push away from academic elitism. Universities need to demonstrate how the funding for their research is making a change beyond that research field. As such, we will be witnessing more universities disclosing their impact on society and the environment.
Transparency, good governance and a focus on sustainability are important across every area of a university, and a new generation of students is demanding more from their HEIs.
Students of all ages are making their voices heard. They are seeking more than just a prestigious degree or career path, they are leading change and making a difference – and expecting their universities to do the same.
With more options than ever thanks to the rise of online learning and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), proving their positive impact on their community and the environment is becoming paramount for universities to compete within their field.
We, as the older generation, need to prepare the next generation for the sustainability challenges they will face. Universities, like any other organisations, need to understand what lies ahead. Without acknowledging the sustainability risks, universities won't be able survive and remain competitive within their own sector.
The advent of the THE University Impact Rankings only serves to make HEIs progress towards SDGs and other sustainable practices more important than ever. Impact is no longer purely a social responsibility, it’s a worldwide trend that has immense impact on an institution’s future.
Proactively building impact reporting into research programmes and embedding impact measurement processes early on will enable institutions to have reliable data that demonstrates the true effect they are having on society and the environment.
Not only is impact reporting a requirement in many countries, but an increasingly important factor when applying for funding and attracting donations from foundations and alumni, as well as developing partnerships for sustainability related research and development.
The THE University Impact Rankings are the start of a new phase in assessment that will benefit institutions, students and wider society, and level the playing field for more universities to show the important impact they are having in the world.
Dr Mary Ho, Impact Officer, Vertigo Ventures
About Vertigo Ventures: The impact organisation that developed the metrics for the THE’s new league table. Dr May Ho currently teaches ‘Business Ethics and Social Responsibility’ at the HKUST Business School in Hong Kong.