HE ranking place Universities as hubs for sustainability

The Universities of California, Berkeley has been named the global leader in sustainability, according to a new higher education ranking classification which attempts to provide a framework to show universities’ progress in tackling some of the world’s greatest environmental and social challenges.

The QS World University Rankings: Sustainability 2023 rankings were inaugurated on 26 October by QS Quacquarelli Symonds, one of the world’s largest provider of insights into the global higher education sector, mainly through ranking of universities and other educational services. Its new index is based on environmental and social impact challenges, with each of the two main categories drawing 50% of the weighted points.

The University of California, Berkeley achieved top scores in both the environmental impact and social impact categories, while two Canadian universities, the University of Toronto and University of British Columbia, were in second and third positions respectively.

The University of Edinburgh took fourth position while two Australian institutions, the University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney, tied in fifth position. Other universities that made it into the top 10 included the University of Tokyo in Japan, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale in the United States, and the University of Auckland in New Zealand, in that order.

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Europe was represented by 292 universities, or about 42% of the ranked universities globally. The University of Edinburgh, in fourth position globally, was at the top of the European cohort followed by two Swedish universities, Uppsala University and Lund University. The latter two universities were in 11th and 12th positions globally and were joined by Aarhus University of Denmark in the 15th position as the EU’s top three universities.

According to Leigh Kamolins, director of analytics and evaluation at QS, the environmental impact metric has three performance indicators: institutions, education and research. Sustainable education draws 20% of the weighted points, while the sustainable institutions indicator is weighted at 17.5% and sustainable research at 12.5%.

The social impact metric has five indicators: equality, knowledge exchange, impact on education, employability and opportunities, as well as quality of life. Equality was accorded 15% of the total weighted points, while knowledge exchange, impact on education and employability and opportunities indicators were each weighted at 10%, and quality of life at 5%.

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The eight performance lenses are also broken down into about 40 concerns regarding environmental and social impacts and each of them is allocated some weighted points. Some of the pinpointed concerns are areas such as institutional academic reputation, employment outcomes, academic freedom and peer-reviewed research into specific UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Other weighted concerns reflected on diversity issues such as gender pay gaps, women in the workforce and ratio of women in university leadership. Also taken into account were concerns related to university governance, employer reputation and air quality index.

Demand from students and universities

In a pre-launch briefing QS said the new ranking on sustainability was a response to demand from both students and universities and would provide a framework to show what universities are doing to accelerate environmental and social change.

According to the briefing, 81% of respondents to the QS International Student Survey 2022 said they feel that universities are environmentally friendly. However, more than two thirds of students felt that universities could do more.

“Action and transparency on what organisations are doing to accelerate environmental and social change are already an element of most university strategies. Going forward, prospective students and staff won’t want to see just words on a page, they’ll increasingly expect to see measurable impact,” the briefing noted.

In a statement released at the end of September, Kamolins said by coming up with a new ranking, QS wanted to “provide the hundreds of thousands of prospective students we engage with across the world with a lens through which to see and compare where meaningful [social and environmental] progress is being made”.

According to the statement, arising out of a meeting in 2022 when institutions from across the UK came together to discuss the topic “Universities and the climate emergency: action following COP26”, it became apparent that “there was no clear consensus about how to effectively evaluate progress without a common framework to benchmark against”.

Kamolins said: “We understand that universities have multiple roles to play and we want to provide a way of evaluating progress across teaching, research and engagement. Progress will look different for different institutions in different regions, but this will allow all universities to track and plan what role they can play.”

Comparisons with other rankings

Asked about the robustness of the QS sustainability rankings in comparison with competing classifications, such as the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings, Dr Andrew MacFarlane, QS ranking manager, said theirs was designed as a higher education counterpart to the commonly used environmental, social and governance (ESG) framework, that refers to sets of standards that are regularly applied in the corporate world to assess a firm’s behaviour and its impact on the wider world.

“In this regard, our ranking looks at the environmental and social impact that a university has on its students, and society at large,” MacFarlane told University World News.

He explained that while QS has included research impact in its sustainability ranking metrics that look at the SDGs, “this is not an SDG ranking, as these were felt to fit more closely with national rather than institutional goals”.

According to MacFarlane, research on decision-making undertaken by QS showed that students are not only interested in the university itself, but the features of the countries in which they exist.

“Our main objective is to encourage universities to see their wider global responsibility,” MacFarlane said.

Another key feature that separates the QS sustainability rankings from its competitors, according to MacFarlane, is that over 75% of the weight of the QS rankings comes from data provided not by universities but by Elsevier datasets, QS reputation data, alumni lists and national statistics from bodies such as UNESCO and the World Bank.

“By ensuring that anyone has a chance to feature, whether they participate or not, we strive for an inclusive ranking that ensures students get an unabridged picture of the national and regional performance in the sustainability space,” said MacFarlane.

Commenting on the emerging interest in the global sustainability agenda among university ranking enterprises, Richard Holmes, an expert on higher education rankings, said he was inclined to believe that the QS approach to derive data from sources other than the university itself, might be a good one.

“Whereas THE requires universities to opt in and submit data, QS allows universities to submit data but if they don’t, it strives to obtain data from other sources.

“But since there are so many problems with self-submitted data, I am inclined to think that the QS approach is better,” Holmes said in an interview on Thursday 27 October.

He said while THE has 1,400 universities in its docket and thus could claim to be more inclusive, QS ends up with 700, which could be more stable and reliable.

Sustainability and social justice courses

By publishing the new rankings, Kamolins thinks that more universities globally will offer more sustainability and social justice modules across degree programmes and projects.

“Over the years, universities have been the birthplace of social and environmental progress, informing not only public policy but public attitudes over time,” Kamolins said ahead of the launch of the QS World University Rankings: Sustainability 2023.

Subsequently, in this first edition of the sustainability rankings, only institutions that were eligible for the QS World University Rankings were evaluated. Additional criteria for eligibility were for a university to have a strategy on climate action and mitigation as well as having a reasonable number of papers across 16 different SDG research areas in peer-reviewed journals.

QS evaluated 1,300 universities and of those, 700 made it to the rankings and only those universities that demonstrated quality and research impact were finally graded.

But unlike the regular QS World University Rankings, the new rankings had mixed results as some of the lesser known universities surpassed some of the traditional top higher education performers in academic reputation, teaching and research.

Results by region, country

In total, the United Kingdom had the highest number of universities that were ranked in Europe as it had 68 universities or about 10% of all of the universities that were ranked globally.

In addition to the University of Edinburgh (fourth globally), other British universities ranked among the world’s top 50 included the University of Glasgow (13), University of Oxford (16), University of Newcastle (18), University of Cambridge (19), University of Cardiff (25) and University of Lancaster (26).

Others in the group were the University of York (36), Imperial College London (40), University College London (42), University of Exeter (48) and University of Manchester (50).

As a region, North America had 161 universities, or 23% of the ranked universities worldwide. The United States dominated the entire rankings, with 135 ranked universities, representing 19.2% of the total, including having 30 universities among the top 100.

Asia was represented by 159 universities, or 22.7% of the ranked universities, but only six of them were among the top 100 in the rankings. In addition to Tokyo that was in seventh position globally, other leading universities in the region in the order of ranking were the University of Hong Kong (34), University of Malaya (66) and National Taiwan University (69).

The results also showed that 15 Indian universities were ranked, with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay taking the country’s highest rank, placing in the 281-300 band globally.

In the Arab region, the highest-ranked university was the American University of Beirut that was placed in 140th position, while King Saud University (191-200) was the only other regional university among the world’s top 200.

Some 31 universities were ranked in Latin America with Argentina and Brazil providing the highest number among the ranked universities. Top universities in the region were the University of Sao Paulo (34) and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (78).

In Oceania, 41 universities were ranked and the region was dominated by Australia, as it had 33 of its universities, making it the fifth-highest represented country in the rankings. Twelve universities from Australia were among the world’s top 100.

Some 16 universities in Africa were ranked, with South Africa providing more than 50% of the continent’s ranked cohort. The University of Cape Town (132), University of Pretoria (171-180) and University of Johannesburg (171-180) were among the top 200 globally.

Commenting on the overall results, Jessica Turner, the chief executive officer at QS, said there appears to be an urgent need to support universities in all countries in monitoring and benchmarking their progress in finding solutions to some of the unprecedented global sustainability challenges.

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