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In my opinion

New ranking to look at universities’ contributions to sustainable development

Linking universities to the UN’s sustainable development goals will draw greater scrutiny to higher education, for better or worse.


A new global university ranking looms on the higher education horizon, and universities might need to start considering how to deal with what could be the beginning of a global rankings 2.0 generation. The U.K.-based Times Higher Education (THE), which already publishes an annual World University Rankings, announced recently its intention to publish the world’s first university impact ranking in April of this year. The new system measures universities’ contributions to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals are the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN’s blueprint for tackling the world’s most pressing challenges, so the new THE product could be more than a renewed kerfuffle over matters of performance in higher education.

Don’t mistake this as an argument for rankings – far from it. I share the concerns of the international higher education community over the methodological limitations of global university rankings insofar as the data they use are assembled for narrow and specific purposes. I also recognize how rankings can create perverse incentives in the sense of goading institutional leadership into adopting actions and practices that are injurious to both sound educational administration and democratic accountability. But I also recognize what research says about their ability to create a sense of urgency for higher education institutions to collect data and monitor their performance, thereby building a capacity for informed decision-making, and that’s not a bad thing.

This does not suggest rankings are necessary to motivate universities and colleges to play their part in driving sustainable development. Higher education institutions have traditionally played this critical role by virtue of their unique position within society as the chief mechanism of social mobility, and knowledge production and dissemination. Nevertheless, linking universities to the SDGs could increase universities’ impact, and it might not require additional costs as much as it requires improved organizational effectiveness.

It is important, when judging a new ranking that claims to assess universities’ contributions to a collective project of such magnitude as the SDGs, that the metrics used are sound – especially since we might see other SDG-related rankings similar to THE’s in the future. It all depends on how much furore this first SDG-based ranking will stir and the level of attention it receives when launched in April.

Some reflections on the methodology

In broad strokes, the methodology attempts to establish links with the UN’s 17 SDGs, 169 indicators and 223 targets. The ranking itself will be based on a subset of 11 SDGs, 47 metrics and 111 targets. These were selected by the publisher, raising the same criticism leveled at other global university rankings. But there are other points to note:

  1. There is a shift of focus from relying mostly on inputs (e.g., university income and student-staff ratios) and outputs (e.g., research productivity) to outcomes or impact (e.g., contributions to local communities). This draws the line between the old global rankings and the new one described here as generation 2.0. THE refers to their ranking as the “impact ranking,” so definitionally, the name calls attention to the shift observed here;
  2. Standards for participation are more inclusive than those of THE’s annual World University Rankings. The latter links inclusion in the ranking process to universities’ amount of research output. For the new impact ranking, universities just need to be accredited by their national accreditation system, and this means more universities will be eligible to take part. This will encourage more universities, especially teaching universities, to participate and take advantage of the opportunity for increased visibility;
  3. Universities may submit data relevant to all 11 SDGs if they wish (with a minimum of four), but this must include SDG 17, which seeks to strengthen global partnerships. This would allow comparisons across similar areas of performance;
  4. Universities will not be organized in a single table, another big change. We will probably see multiple tables in the future, assessing universities on different SDGs;
  5. Data will be collected from universities and by THE’s partner in this enterprise, Elsevier, and this means metrics will have different weights as data obtained from external sources are considered more reliable.

These are not exhaustive, but the metrics generally integrate more dimensions of university performance than the current global university rankings.

Is there anything for higher ed?

The university impact ranking will probably do what global rankings have done since 2003 when the first one was born: fix governments’ gaze even further on how higher education can help to address the complex social, economic and environmental challenges ahead for their nations. This is a positive thing, partly because the SDGs have a strong relevance to higher education, and there is a strong interest in the UN SDGs by governments in most countries. The SDGs may therefore lead to the development of new funding streams for higher education in the future. This is important for universities as it comes during unsettled times for higher education, characterized by faltering public support.

But there is a disconnect here. On the one hand, governments announce their support for the SDGs and expect higher education institutions to extend a helping hand. On the other hand, government spending on higher education, as a percentage of total expenditures on education, is in decline globally, which could limit what colleges and universities could do on this front.

A final word

A valuable lesson from the brief history of global university rankings is that the higher education community, and society more broadly, will be better served when academics engage in the evaluation process of these rankings. The first SDG-based ranking will be out soon, and academics should start looking at it more closely while it is still in the formative stage to make sure it does not exert a negative influence on higher education.

Edmund Adam is a PhD candidate of higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. He is currently conducting research on the influence of global rankings on institutional strategies and policy choice of four Canadian research-intensive universities.

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  1. Prof. Khaliq Ahmad / February 28, 2019 at 02:07

    It’s interesting to see some solace on the part of academics with the new dimensions of ranking vis a vis SDG. However my worry remains regarding the cents and dollars that involves in this process and it takes a toll on the already shrinking funding received by institutions of higher learning.
    I am sharing my experience with the THE excercise that made me feel horrible things to do in a chase to be better ranked by the universities in developing especially Muslim World….