Times Higher Education has delivered another bumper edition of its Impact Rankings, released late Wednesday.

More than 1 240 institutions across 98 countries submitted data, compared to 859 institutions in 2020 and 556 institutions in the inaugural edition of 2019.

The THE Impact Rankings is not designed to measure an institution’s excellence nor its reputation.  This ranking is focused on measuring universities’ social, environmental, and economic impacts. It is designed to showcase how institutions are working towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Once again, Australian universities have done extremely well, despite the significant increase in the number of institutions submitting data. Of the 24 universities which received an overall score, 17 were ranked in the world’s top 100, compared to 15 out of 21 participating universities in 2020.

To summarise the changes in standing for Australian institutions from last year to this year: seven moved up in position, nine moved down, four remain unchanged, and there are four new entrants.

Australian top performers

The University of Sydney remains Australia’s number one institution (ranked 2nd globally) and is followed by RMIT University, which moved up from 10th to 3rd globally. La Trobe U remains 4th globally, while the University of Wollongong moved up from 31st to =6th globally.

The University of the Sunshine Coast and Griffith University are new entrants to this ranking, coming in at 26th and 38th, respectively. Further down, James Cook University, which ranked 39th in the 2019 edition but was unranked in 2020 is ranked 91st in 2021. Federation University is another new entrant ranked in the 101-200 band.

Four Australian universities are the big improvers: The University of Wollongong (up by 31 positions to =6th), the University of Newcastle (up by 33 positions to 12th), Australian Catholic University (up by 47 positions to =54th) and the University of Canberra which moved from the 101-200 band to =57th.

Of the Australian institutions which have moved down in overall standing, four institutions declined by more than 20 positions but remain among the world’s top 100. These are: Deakin University, the University of Tasmania, and UNSW Sydney. Charles Sturt University, which ranked 61st in 2020, dropped to the 101-200 band.

Volatility is unavoidable but stability is warranted

It is worth pointing out that the movement in standing that we see this year globally is, in part, a reflection of methodological adjustments made by THE and the significant increase in the number of participating universities. It also reflects the way overall scores are calculated, by combining a university’s score in SDG 17 with its top three scores out of the remaining SDGs for which institutions submit data. We have seen that universities performance on an SDG-by-SDG basis tend to vary from year to year. It may also be the case that universities are getting better at providing answers and evidence required by THE. The top bar may be getting higher with every passing year.

This is a ranking which is not necessarily stable time. For its first two years, the University of Auckland ranked 1st and it now ranks =9th. The University of Manchester (ranked 8th last year) ranks now 1st globally. Another example is the University of Bologna which ranked 9th in the 2019 edition, 6th in 2020, is now 20th.

This volatility is perhaps an outcome that is neither desirable nor sustainable for the longevity of this ranking. Whilst we always emphasise the need for rankings to be stable, the very nature of this one is that institutions can choose their preferred SDGs annually. This means that what is seen as best practice on a specific SDG one year is superseded by another the year after. One way to bring stability to this ranking is by changing the mandatory number of SDGs from one to four and base the overall score on them. All other SDGs become basis for benchmarking. Another way to mitigate volatility is to contextualise this ranking on a world region basis.

Not all SDGs are viewed equally

We see that the 17 SDGs are not all viewed equally across countries and world regions. This is reflected in the way countries report their progress in achieving the SDGs through the voluntary national reviews and the focus to the SDGs varies over time. What is seen across countries and world regions can be seen across higher education institutions.

Consider the SDGs most frequented by institutions globally and across Australia.

SDG 17 (Partnership for the Goals) is the only one that is mandatory for institutions to be ranked. Globally, there were 1,154 institutions which were ranked on this SDG, 24 from Australia.

Aside from SDG 17, the top four most reported SDGs by Australian universities, in descending order, are SDG 3 (Good Health and Wellbeing), SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities), SDG 4 (Quality Education) and SDG 5 (Gender Equality). In turn, the top four most reported SDGs globally were, in descending order: SDG 4 (Quality Education), SDG 3 (Good Health and Wellbeing), SDG 5 (Quality Education) and SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth).

The least reported SDGs among Australian universities, in ascending order are SDG 1 (No Poverty) and SDG 2 (Zero Hunger). Globally the less reported SDGs, in ascending order are SDG 14 (Life below Water) and SDG 15 (Life on Land).

There are 26 instances across the 17 SDGs in which Australian universities rank in the top 5.  La Trobe U  four instances (1st globally in SDG 15 Life on Land, 2nd in SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth and SDG 5 Gender Equality), then Sydney, RMIT and Western Sydney with three instances each.

Uni Sydney is 1st globally in SDG 6 Clean Water and Sanitation, 2nd in SDG 15 Life on Land and 4th in SDG 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities. RMIT is 2nd in SDG 10 Reduced Inequalities, 3rd in SDG 17 Partnership for the Goals and 5th in SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth. In turn, Uni Western Sydney ranks 3rd in SDG 5 Gender Equality, 4th in SDG 10 Reduced Inequalities and 5th in SDG 17 Partnership for the Goals. The remaining 13 instances are distributed across nine other universities, including Uni Canberra, Uni Newcastle, Uni Sunshine Coast, Uni Wollongong, ACU, Charles Darwin U, Griffith U, Monash U and QUT.

Need for ongoing improvement

Even though Australian universities performed very well this year, there is no room for complacency – an institution’s best efforts or best practice one year may not be replicated the next. Through THE DataPoints, institutions across the globe can scrutinise the underpinning data, policies and evidence submitted by institutions. On these bases, the best practices of an institution can be replicated elsewhere.

We also see that institutions are progressively embarking on a variety of data sharing and benchmarking exercises to ascertain best practices on environmental, social and economic impact measures. These data sharing and benchmarking exercises are happening across world regions through institutional networks and peer institutions. The THE Impact Rankings has been a catalyst for institutions to embark on a sustainable development journey which seeks to bring closer alignment to universities’ mission and the 2030 sustainable development agenda.

The THE Impact Ranking is an annual endeavour with  universities investing considerable time and effort in terms of data, policies and evidence. Institutions determine what information is best to be put forward, noting that policies and evidence need to be on the public domain (such as institutions’ website).

Times Higher Education Impact Ranking: Number of institutions ranked by SDG, 2021
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Number of institutions ranked Australian universities
Global Australia Top 100 As a %
SDG1: No Poverty 591 9 6 67%
SDG2: Zero Hunger 442 7 4 57%
SDG3: Good Health and Wellbeing 871 26 17 65%
SDG4: Quality Education 966 19 12 63%
SDG5: Gender Equality 776 19 17 89%
SDG6: Clean Water and Sanitation 520 12 11 92%
SDG7: Affordable and Clean Energy 560 15 13 87%
SDG8: Decent Work and Economic Growth 685 16 10 63%
SDG9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure 680 10 3 30%
SDG10: Reduced Inequalities 669 21 15 71%
SDG11: Sustainable Cities and Communities 656 18 12 67%
SDG12: Responsible Consumption and Production 503 9 7 78%
SDG13: Climate Action 566 11 8 73%
SDG14: Life below Water 379 12 12 100%
SDG15: Life on Land 402 16 15 94%
SDG16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions 653 17 11 65%
SDG17: Partnership for the Goals 1154 25 17 68%
Overall 24 17 71%

Supplementary information

Australian top performers by SDG by SDG, in descending order:

SDG1 (No Poverty): Wollongong, Tasmania, Federation, QUT and Sydney.

SDG2 (Zero Hunger): Sydney, Queensland, Western Sydney, Charles Sturt and Tasmania.

SDG3 (Good Health and Wellbeing): ACU, La Trobe, James Cook, Newcastle and     Griffith.

SDG4 (Quality Education): Canberra, UniSA, Western Sydney, Edith Cowan and Federation.

SDG5 (Gender Equality): La Trobe, Western Sydney, Charles Darwin, Monash and Charles Sturt.

SDG6 (Clean Water and Sanitation): Sydney, Wollongong, UNSW, Western Sydney and La Trobe.

SDG7 (Affordable and Clean Energy): Newcastle, QUT, Monash,      Wollongong and Queensland.

SDG8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth): La Trobe, Wollongong, RMIT, Sydney and       Monash.

SDG9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure): Wollongong, RMIT, Sydney, Monash and UNSW.

SDG10 (Reduced Inequalities): Canberra, RMIT, Western Sydney, Wollongong and Murdoch.

SDG11(Sustainable Cities and Communities): Monash, Sydney, RMIT, Wollongong and La Trobe.

SDG12 (Responsible Consumption and Production): Wollongong, Western Sydney, Sydney, La Trobe and UNSW.

SDG13 (Climate Action): Tasmania, Western Sydney, Sunshine Coast, Charles Sturt and Newcastle.

SDG14 (Life below Water): Sunshine Coast, Wollongong, Central Qld, UNSW and James Cook.

SDG15 (Life on Land): La Trobe,   Sydney, Sunshine Coast, Wollongong and Macquarie.

SDG16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions): VU, Griffith, Sydney, Wollongong and Western Sydney.

SDG17 (Partnership for the Goals): Newcastle, RMIT, Western Sydney, Griffith and Sunshine Coast.

Note: The University of Queensland is listed on individual SDGs but did not receive an overall score.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research at RMIT


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