Impact rankings are not a new thing, but they are suddenly in very sharp focus. Rather than traditional rankings which consider things like quantity of research, teaching quality and staff to student ratio, impact rankings look at the contribution an institution makes towards a sustainable future planet, society and economy.
This has been around for a little while already. Greenmetric began measuring the impact of HEIs in 2010, on the "three pillars" of sustainability: social, economic and environmental. Before that, the well-known US-centric, STARS (Sustainability Tracking And Rating System) began to measure impact in 2006.
While not tied explicitly to the SDGs, their self-report tool tracks progress in a number of key areas, from building energy efficiency to the impact of the investments the institution makes. The WURI (World Universities with Real Impact) framework was launched in 2021, but does broaden out the sense of "impact" to consider aspects such as the way the institution prepares its learners for the fourth industrial revolution.
In 2018, Times Higher Education decided to develop a new impact ranking system which uses the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as its core framework. The merits of this at a methodological level are something to be debated (measuring impact in general is notoriously difficult, and THE do not claim to be perfect in this), but the use of such a universally recognized structure is very welcome.
Think about it. Right now HEI's are signing net-zero pledges, embedding sustainability in their curriculum, building out their research, innovation and organizational strategy to become transformative forces for change in society. All of this is generally guided by the SDGs and their sub-indicators and KPIs, so having an impact ranking on the same wavelength is a real game changer.
We attended the Times Higher Education Global Sustainable Development Congress in Glasgow in November 2022. The event opened with Phil Baty of THE talking about the need for impact rankings. Whilst frankly admitting that the process of impact ranking was not an exact science, THE does drive its rankings' configuration through access to vast amounts of data.
A university news article, whilst cynical about the monetization of such data, did conclude that the THE impact rankings "highlight the importance of the SDGs and provide a tool for self-assessment which higher education institutions can then showcase to students and others". At this level alone, that is important.
Baty referred in his opening remarks to the results of a survey of 2000 young students, in which 82% of them said they expected their HEI to instill in them the skills and knowledge to support sustainability. More than 30% of them said they would check the institution's record and commitment to sustainability as a factor in their decision to study there. The panel agreed wholeheartedly that this number would grow.
Later in the day, these sentiments were echoed by Tony Chan, President of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. Tony told the audience that more and more students were coming to them, not for specific disciplines of study, but to find out how they might address certain issues in the world and do something to help solve them. "It would be a good idea to organize our studies around solving problems, or even around the SDGs themselves" said Tony, and this is a sentiment we see growing.
Keystone Education Group say that "future generations, of Z and Alpha, want to be problem-solvers, fix the environmental crisis, and make the world better. And they are now in college or beginning their college search".
Impact rankings based around the SDGs are not just about universities celebrating their own growth towards net-zero and transformative leadership, but will be something the education marketing and admissions teams need to really be aware of. The search is no longer so much about prestige, as it is about impact.
Take a look at the 2022 impact rankings. Many of the usual suspects, who occupy the upper echelons of more traditional rankings, are notable for their absence on page one. The Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) comes in joint 4th place, despite being ranked 165th in the more traditional QS World University Rankings. We see a strong showing in SDG 5 (gender equality), which is not an SDG that many universities are strong in. Despite being a science university, which is typically male dominated even today, USM boasts a 64 : 36 female to male ratio, as well as a number of outreach programs to broaden access beyond traditional recruitment and admissions routes.
That is amazing. Where would this show up in a traditional ranking matrix? How much weight would it be given? The thing is that people do care about things like this. We care about things like this. Finally, universities who are doing good things to address social issues have rankings that help them showcase their initiatives and connect with a new generation who are looking beyond prestige for something more.
Say what you will about the accuracy of the ranking systems, but the difference between impact rankings and the rest is that just participating is good for everyone. Working towards the SDGs is a marathon, not a sprint, and as more and more attention is paid to sustainable institutions, more and more institutions will want to be part of this. That has always been the way of change.
Sharing the data also comes with sharing the knowledge. Notice in the impact rankings how SDG 17 was the most prominent goal throughout the whole thing. Why? Because partnerships are everything in moving collectively towards change. Research and innovation communities, broader access to study and greater collaboration between public, private and third sectors is part of de-siloing higher education and helping it to become the fluid and adaptive reflection of our higher ideals that we all need it to be.
There is something different about impact rankings: collaborative over competitive, progress over prestige, impact over self-interest. We are excited to watch the way this changes the game in the next five years and beyond, and of course as a purpose-first and values-based marketing consultancy, we are ready to help others connect with new generations over a shared sense of what we might do together.