The fourth edition of the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings, released yesterday, is another bumper edition. Globally, the number of participating institutions increased from 1117 in 2021 to 1406 – an increase of 289 institutions (or 26 per cent).

Since the 2019 inaugural edition, when 462 institutions provided data for four or more SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), the number of participating institutions has increased by 944. This means there is a strong appetite for this ranking, despite concerns about its methodological construct. This strong growth in participation brings increased volatility year-on-year, which sooner or later THE will have to address for the sake of this novel ranking’s longevity.

Year after year there have been surprises; but this year there are more than usual. It will take some time to digest the results and assess how universities stack up against another on every SDG. Universities which rank at the top are drawn from a wider range of countries compared to the World University Rankings.

Australian shake up

There is also a shake up in the standing of Australian universities. Out of the 25 Australian universities included in the ranking, 13 moved down in overall standing, seven moved up, two remain unchanged in position (or band), and three are new entrants.

The downturn in performance for Australian universities was significantly influenced by new entrants to this ranking, which in many cases outperformed universities that have consistently done well since this schema was launched in 2019.

A clue for the weakening performance of Australian universities is clear in SDG 17 Partnership for the Goals, in which 15 Australian universities declined in standing.

THE introduced some methodological changes to several SDGs which could have adversely impacted on Australian universities. One of those changes pertains to SDG 17; specifically, the metrics which form part of the section about Education for the SDGs. This section was split into three indicators, meaning two additional indicators were added.

Most importantly, THE’s validation team was greatly expanded this year given the increased number of participating institutions. Furthermore, THE has established a dedicated quality assurance team to confirm that evidence submitted by institutions aligns strictly with guidelines.

In addition, evidence from institutions that may have scored generously last year is now reviewed in greater depth with clearer guidelines.

Despite this shake up, 17 Australian universities are included in the world’s top 100 in the overall rank – unchanged compared to last year.

This is a moment of reckoning for many universities in Australia (and high-income economies) in how they perform in global rankings. It is a timely and brutal reminder that the world of higher education is changing. The results from the Impact Rankings shed light on how universities from middle income economies are shaping the global landscape.

Australian universities also need to consider how the world sees us. We might no longer be held in the same esteem as our universities were in the 1990s.

Top Australian performers

Three institutions which ranked outside the top 100 last year moved up: Charles Sturt U now ranks 67th, Wollongong 70th, and Central Queensland 83rd.

UTS is a new entrant, making its debut as the world’s top 15th. UTS ranks 2nd in SDG 6 (clean water) and 3rd in SDG 12 (responsible production, consumption).

Western Sydney moved up 16 places to rank 1st globally. In the 2019 edition, Western Sydney ranked 11th and 3rd in the 2020 edition. This is a well-deserved recognition for Western Sydney and is evidence that long term commitments to sustainability, addressing social and economic inequality, and stewardship initiatives pay off.

By contrast, the University of Sydney which ranked 2nd globally last year dropped 50 places to 52nd. Also, Wollongong University dropped from 6th last year to 70th, and Griffith University went from 38th last year to 92nd this year.

Whilst La Trobe and RMIT declined in overall performance between 15 and 19 places, these two institutions remain highly competitive. We also see that the University of Tasmania moved up 51 places to rank 25th globally, and UNSW Sydney is up 41 places from 96th last year to 55th.

Not for the faint-hearted

The Impact Rankings is not for the faint-hearted university leader. This is a ranking which requires university leaders to make strategic decisions which bear fruit over many years. There will be years in which an institution’s performance will be up and then down.

The journey will be bumpy and give inexplicable results at times. We have seen how the University of Auckland performed well for the first two years of this ranking when it ranked first globally. Last year, Manchester University ranked first and this year it is the turn for Western Sydney to be the world’s number one.

As discussed last year (CMM, 22 April 2021), the movement that we see year-on-year can be explained in part by new entrants, methodological adjustments made by THE, and the SDGs for which universities elect to participate in. There is no doubt that universities are getting better at providing answers and evidence required by THE. It also appears that what is deemed as best practice on a specific SDG one year is superseded by another the year after.

Stability over increased participation

Years ago I commended THE for not shying away from experimenting with alternative approaches to university rankings (UWN, 10 February 2017).  I have also noted that THE has massively expanded the number of universities included in its world university rankings – 1622 in the 2022 edition compared to 1103 in 2018, and 400 in 2012.

I have also advocated for all ranking schemas to strive for stability in results from one year to the next, for the sake of longevity and usability of results for benchmarking.

In a ranking schema like the Impact Rankings, there is not much that materially can change in institutional practice or advocacy year on year, particularly when it comes to presenting evidence or case studies on specific SDGs.

One way to gain this stability is to increase the number of compulsory SDGs. At present, SDG 17 Partnership for the Goals is the only compulsory SDG for institutions. THE could, for example, say that all institutions must submit data for SDG 4 Quality Education.

The tightening of guidelines is a welcome move by THE if ultimately delivers stability a degree in results.

Lessons from around the globe

Having worked with institutions across world regions over recent years on performance measurement, there are some important learning which we can use to reflect on institutional performance.

First, longevity in commitments to sustainability and its practice can only take an institution that far. The same goes for social media visibility. What we have seen is that there are many institutions which are quiet achievers and shaking up the landscape of higher education and sustainability practice.

Secondly, academic leadership is essential to steer the university community to collectively pursue a sustainable development agenda that is strategically aligned to the institution’s mission.

University leaders need to address barriers which can hinder having an integrated institutional practice. Multi disciplinarity perspectives need to be embedded in research endeavours, student learning, and teaching and across institutional stewardship initiatives.

Thirdly, taking part in the Impact Rankings exercise or in any benchmarking endeavours is resource intensive. Universities need to adequately resource it in terms of staffing to gain the most from participation. Universities are then able to develop a roadmap for ongoing improvements.

Attention to detail is important when preparing the Impact Rankings submission; weak or poorly presented evidence can be costly. THE requires for specificity in evidence and having it in the public domain helps.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research at RMIT


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