New THE rankings focus on university impact (opinion)

Universities, too often seen as elicit, have lost touch with the American people.

This was the warning from Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, speaking earlier this month on a panel at the ASU+GSV Summit, the San Diego ed-tech event co-organized by his institution. Crow said there was a groundswell of “negative energy” toward universities, and things had gotten so bad “that the Congress of the United States is now taxing all the large university endowments” to send a clear message that universities need to do more to convince the public of their value.

The problem, said Crow, was that universities had “failed at the job of communicating” their social impact. And the consequences were extremely grim: “If we don’t figure out how to communicate, this gap between the general public and the universities is going to accelerate until we get torches at the door. That’s possible. Torches at the door are now in the realm of possibility.”

A large part of the blame for this alarming disconnect falls squarely on college rankings—and colleges’ responses to them, the panel agreed.

“Rankings are part of a communications strategy that represents what we value,” said panelist Mary Papazian, former president of San José State University. “And what we’ve traditionally valued does not capture what we need to value going forward.”

As someone who has been involved in the production and publication of rankings, including the influence Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, for about a decade and a half, I agreed with the panel, which I convened as the chair. We have to be frank: too many rankings reward the wrong things and risk deepening the alarming divide between universities and their communities.

In the US, colleges get rewarded for raising the barriers to entry and for turning greater numbers of students away when we need to open our colleges’ doors. Rankings reward simple reputation and wealth, and they fuel the closed loop of privileged, wealthy students attending privileged, wealthy colleges and universities and, as graduates, bestowing greater wealth and privilege on those institutions. Malcolm Gladwell has shown powerfully how one US college ranking perpetuates, even deepens, the deep inequalities faced by America’s historically Black colleges. As one of the world’s most advanced education data and insights businesses, publishing rankings with a huge global reach, THE wants to break the mold. It wants to disrupt the college rankings.

So this week THE publishes the fourth edition of a very different kind of university ranking—the THE Impact Rankings, a set of rankings that directly measure and reward a university’s impact on society, its public good, framed through the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Universities make a positive difference to the world in so many ways, from transforming an individual’s life through opening educational opportunities; to helping shape policy; to driving the economy; to enhance our cultural life; to making the groundbreaking, world-changing discoveries that universities are uniquely placed to make, covering all aspects of our lives. And what better way to capture all the remarkable, expansive, multifaceted, multidisciplinary and interconnected ways that universities can and do make the world a better place than through the broad, interrelated framework of the SDGs? The SDGs focus on issues ranging from eradicating poverty (SDG 1), supporting decent work and economic growth (SDG 8), and driving greater social mobility and equality (SDG 10), to those promoting environmentalism (SDG 13, for climate action, for example). There’s even an SDG (16) promoting “peace, justice and strong institutions,” which feels particularly pertinent right now.

While universities get barely a mention in the SDG documentation, at THE WE know that universities are absolutely vital to the successful delivery of the goals—through their teaching; through their research; through their outreach with governments, nongovernmental organizations and businesses; and, of course, through their stewardship of their own affairs: the treatment of their staff, their management of their campus estates. The rankings’ methodology is based on hundreds of measures around these four key pillars: teaching, research, outreach and stewardship.

The ranking results, based on more than 100 metrics and 200 measurements, paint a remarkably rich picture and help us present a new vision of what excellence in higher education looks like. This year, for the fourth edition, more than 1,500 universities from 110 countries took part—volunteering to hold themselves up for scrutiny for their social and economic impact. There are 17 individual rankings for each of the SDGs, and an overall ranking amalgamating the scores for universities’ best-performing SDGs.

In the overall top 10 alone, eight nations across four continents are represented. While the US utterly dominates traditional global rankings, only one university from the US, Arizona State, makes the overall world top 10, taking second place. The overall list is headed up by a largely unsung Australian university, Western Sydney University. A Malaysian institution, Universiti Sans Malaysia, takes fourth place over all.

The rankings for individual SDGs show universities from all over the world delivering real impact against their own missions and priorities, across the continents—whether that’s Western University in Canada leading efforts to help eradicate poverty (SDG 1) or the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa leading on work to provide decent work and economic growth (SDG 8) or Fudan University in China heading up the table of universities’ contribution to delivering affordable, clean energy (SDG 7).

At the ASU+GSV Summit panel, called Redefining University Excellence: UN Sustainable Development Goals Disrupt College Rankings, Joy Johnson, president of Canada’s Simon Fraser University, said the university took part in the impact rankings to “hold a mirror up to ourselves.”

“We’ve learned some interesting things,” she said. “We have surprised ourselves… and most importantly, we’ve learned where the gaps are and where we need to continue to push ourselves.”

THE is honored to help demonstrate the extraordinary public good of universities to the American public—and to keep pushing.

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