Over the past two years QS worked behind the scenes to develop its Sustainability Rankings, which was released overnight. Out of the 700 universities included in the ranking, 33 are from Australia with 12 in the top 100.

this ranking is designed to

* showcase how universities are taking action to tackle the world’s greatest Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) challenges, and

* demonstrate how universities are using their expertise and social position to drive sustainable development forward.

It reflects performance across the different themes of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with a distinct focus on social and environmental aspects.

Before I discuss how Australian universities performed, let us first focus on the methodological construct and global participation in this inaugural edition.

opt-in is not an option

The key thing is that there is no opt-in in this ranking, as QS is able to produce it without direct submission from institutions. Some institutions directly submitted information and others did not provide data. QS gathered data on more than 1000 institutions across the globe.

With this ranking, QS provides another tool for universities to brand and differentiate themselves from other institutions. It is also another tool which universities can use to widen discussion how to progress achievement of the sustainable development agenda and fulfilment of their own strategy.

The QS ranking competes directly against Times Higher Education Impact Rankings (for which institutions opt in).

methodological construct

This ranking contains two pillars: environmental impact and societal impact. Each has a weight of 50 per cent. There are about 38 separate metrics which feed into eight performance lenses which QS apply in judging how universities are addressing sustainability and sustainable development.

QS assesses institutional performance in relation to environmental impact through three lenses:

* sustainable education worth 20 per cent

* sustainable institutions worth 17.5 per cent

* sustainable research worth 12.5 per cent.

In relation to social impact, QS assesses performance through five lenses:

* employment opportunities worth 10 per cent

* equality worth 15 per cent

* quality of life quality worth 5 per cent

* impact of education worth 10 per cent

* knowledge exchange worth 10 per cent.

In the environmental category, there is a metric which ascertains the extent to which an institution is an active participant in university networks on climate action and the SDGs. We are likely to see an increase in the number of university networks in response to this ranking. In due course we will be able to see what behaviour these kinds of measures lead to. I hope that in the long run being part of networks, universities will drive and influence long lasting social change rather than reinforcing elite status. I also hope that being part of university network is inclusive of institutions across world regions, particularly those from middle- and low-income countries.

In the social impact category, there are some metrics which reflect what occurs at a national level rather at institutional level. One of these measures is the Academic Freedom Index. We are likely to see that the various measures will evolve over time, and hopefully these will lead to change where it is necessary.

complexity is unavoidable

There is a degree of complexity in the construct of this ranking as each lens contains a combination of metrics from a range of sources. These include reputation surveys and QS data sources (about 35 per cent), bibliometrics (about 32 per cent), with the remaining 33 per cent drawn from public sources and institution themselves.

Invariably this ranking is likely to have a degree of volatility as it evolves, but I do not envisage it will have the degree of instability we have seen in the THE Impact Ranking.

The challenge for QS is how this ranking can be more inclusive of universities from middle- and low-income economies, which are yet to attain a comparable volume and quality of scholarly outputs and reputation compared to universities from high income economies.

This ranking is likely to attract a degree of scrutiny because some of its metrics appear to reinforce a hegemonic status for elite institutions. For example, some of the measures of alumni impact in the corporate sector, public, and third sector are more likely to help well-resourced, endowed, and historical institutions compared to those that are younger and less well-resourced. The reliance on reputation measures for this sustainability ranking is likely to be objected by critics.

One thing that is likely to occur is that a greater number of institutions will rush to publicise how they are advancing the sustainable development agenda and what their environmental and civic footprint is.

geographical spread and performance

This ranking includes institutions from 71 jurisdictions, of which 135 are from the United States, 68 from the United Kingdom, 39 from Germany and 37 from mainland China. Australia is overall fifth with 33 institutions.

Australia outperforms these top four countries: 36 per cent of Australian universities rank in the top 100 compared to 22 per cent for the United States and 29 per cent for the United Kingdom. Germany and China have no institution ranked in the top 100.

Australia also outperforms these countries in the proportion of institutions ranked in the top 200 and top 300. Additionally, Australia also outperforms universities from Scandinavian countries in the proportion of universities ranked in the top 100, top 200 and top 300.

Australia is slightly ahead of Canada in the proportion of institutions in the top 100, top 200 and top 300, but Canada is ahead of Australia in the proportion of universities in the top 50.

It is particularly interesting to observe that Australian universities stand out in both the QS Sustainability Rankings and the THE Impact Ranking, and yet, Australia as a country underperforms in the Sach’s Sustainable Development Report. In the 2022 Sach’s SDG Index, Australia ranks 38 globally compared to Canada at 29 and well behind the Scandinavian countries of Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway which rank first to fourth, respectively.

One way to explain this is that Australian universities have long embraced sustainability whilst wholeheartedly adopting performance measurement (including rankings) to attest their success and impact both domestically and globally. It is also important to note there has been limited action by the Australian government on climate change.

usual suspects are at the top

Let’s see what kind of institutions perform well in this ranking. As a starting point, the majority of universities (85 per cent) ranked by QS are classified as “very high” in terms of research intensity.  This means the probabilities for non-research intensive and less well-resourced universities to rank high are limited. It is worth noting that the key criteria QS adopted for inclusion in this ranking was that institutions, are eligible for QS’ world university ranking, have and publish a strategy on climate action or mitigation, and have a reasonable number of papers across 16 different SDG research areas, meaning scholarly outputs are not in the bottom quartile.

Of the universities ranked in the top 100, 73 are historical (i.e., more than 100 years old); 21 are mature (i.e., more than 50 years old). Overall, 52 per cent of the 700 ranked universities are historical.

Therefore, there are no surprises when we see that 24 of the top 50 ranked institutions are also in the top 50 in the 2023 QS WUR, or that 217 of the top 300 universities in the QS Sustainability Rankings are also ranked in the top 300 in QS WUR.

Australia does well

There are 12 Australian universities which rank in the top 100, of which two stand in the top ten. Both UNSW and Sydney rank =5th, followed by Adelaide at 36th and then Melbourne at 51st. RMIT ranks =53rd globally (and 5th in Australia) and is the highest ranked outside the Go8.

Behind these top five institutions, Griffith, UTS, ANU, QUT, Macquarie, Wollongong, and Newcastle follow. Out of Australia’s top 12, Adelaide, Melbourne and ANU are not ranked in the 2022 THE Impact Ranking.

What we observe is that UNSW, Sydney, RMIT and UTS are clearly standout institutions in both THE Impact Ranking and QS Sustainability. UNSW, RMIT and UTS have been signatories to the Tailloires Declaration since the late 1990s. For context, the Tailloires Declaration was the first official statement made by university presidents of a commitment to environmental sustainability in higher education. This is a way to attest the longevity of institutional commitments to sustainability.

Another seven institutions rank in the 101-200 band, which include three Go8 institutions (Uni Queensland, Monash U and UWA), two Australian Technology Network institutions (Uni SA and Curtin U) and three which are part of the Innovative Research Universities network, James Cook, Western Sydney U and Flinders U.

But Western Sydney U, which ranks first globally in THE Impact Rankings (and is in the world’s top 10 in seven SDGs) ranks outside the top 100 in the QS ranking. This is because WSU has lower scores in the employment and opportunities lens, knowledge exchange lens and also in the sustainable research lens. Performance in these lenses is driven by results from reputation surveys, alumni outcomes, and propensity to partner with companies listed in Forbes Top 2000 lists.

In the environmental impact category, 11 Australian universities rank in the top 100, with UNSW and Sydney being the best performers. But only nine Australian universities rank in the top 100 in the social impact category. The difference in performance is in part explained by the kind of measurement involved in each and the subject areas of strength for each institution.

to stand out, or not

What makes an institution stand out in one ranking and not in another is explained in part by the methodological construct for each schema and the nuances of every measure.

However, it is also explained by the expertise of every institutional and the disciplinary areas in which they undertake teaching, research, and research training, as well as the communities and jurisdictions in which they serve and operate. For example, in THE Impact there are some institutions which are likely to stand out in SDG 4 Good Health and Well-being because these universities offer degrees in health, but are likely to underperform in QS Sustainability because of weaker scores derived from the reputation surveys or weakness in alumni impact.

Over the years I have argued that it is no surprise that institutions which have long committed to campus sustainability, student equity, inclusion and diversity tend to perform well in specialised rankings such as THE Impact Rankings and QS Sustainability Rankings.

I find overbearing that there is a reliance of bibliometrics for this kind of specialised rankings. Ranking schemas tend to rely on these measures as they are easy to attain and bypass the need to request data directly from institutions. We would like to see universities being compared on thing that reflect their institutional mission.  This is where we all get stuck, because we cannot reach consensus on what these measures ought to be.

On the other hand, for institutions the continued reliance of bibliometric data means that third parties determine what matters in higher education, what gets measured and how institutions are perceived.

perfect measurement is non existent

There is no such thing as perfect measurement. At an institutional level, we all struggle to find perfect measures which can truly attest to what is core to a university’s mission. There are people who say we do not need to measure things and that we are wasting our time in doing so.

Global rankings will continue to evolve and adjust as circumstances require, but it is unlikely that rankings critics will ease off. This is because rankings measure things that can be [easily] measured and have flawed methodological construct.

Angel Calderon is Principal Adviser, Policy and Research at RMIT. He is a member of the advisory board to QS World University Rankings


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