Are global rankings relevant to sustainable development?

Higher education institutions have been subject to external scrutiny in the form of audits and ranking systems for the past three decades.

Multiple factors have contributed to the rise of the ‘excellence and world class’ discourses that have systematically failed to offer a clear definition but have nonetheless succeeded in creating a global frenzy for quality assurance mechanisms, performance monitoring and the continued mushrooming of university ranking systems – particularly since 2013.

Among these factors, some of the most important include: the rapid massification and expansion of higher education as well as globalisation and student mobility.

Hence the need to convey reliable information about provision to a larger and a more heterogeneous body of students; the shift in the perceptions of the definition and the role of higher education from public good to tradeable service in a neoliberal global free market; the consequent public funding cutbacks and the advancement of public accountability schemes; and rising competition among universities to attract fee-paying international students/consumers.

Within this context, the development and persisting controversial existence of university ranking systems lie in the fact that they provide higher education customers with a readily available shortlisting and reputation-checking tool within a logic of demand and supply.

The question is, whether and to what extent university rankings are relevant if they continue to assume their perpetual impermeability to depicting the quality of universities and their activities and to reflecting and measuring sustainability in the near future.

Higher education and the SDGs

The shortcomings and challenges of implementing the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (2000-15) led to an acknowledgement of the obvious role of universities in the social and economic development of societies and to the inclusion of tertiary education in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (2015-30).

In addition to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.3, several initiatives have been created emphasising the role of higher education in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

One such significant initiative is the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI) that was created in the run-up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012.

HESI created a partnership between UNESCO, the UN Environment Programme, the United Nations University, UN-Habitat, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the UN Institute for Training and Research, the UN Department of Economics and Social Affairs and the UN Global Compact Principles for Responsible Management Education.

Facilitating the voluntary commitments of more than 300 higher education institutions, HESI seeks to provide a unique interface among participating universities to share and promote Agenda 2030 in their teaching, research, campus practices, networking and social impact.

Some of the other important initiatives positioning higher education institutions as key drivers of sustainable development include:
  • • The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS), which provides a self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance, created by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

  • • The Higher Education and Research for Sustainable Development (HESD) led by the International Association of Universities, which promotes sustainability among its 650 member institutions across 130 countries.

  • • The SDG Accord launched by the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges, which attracted more than 600 signatories from over 60 countries pursuing collective and powerful engagement in sustainable development.
Collective power

Creation of these networks and initiatives demonstrates several underlying facts. Primarily, they indicate the leading role and the agile proactivity of higher education institutions in understanding, embracing and responding to the demands of societies for social justice, environmental sustainability and sustainable economic development that are the pillars of Agenda 2030.

By participating in such networks, universities are affirming their traditional role in instigating change and social prosperity through education, training and research and are responding to what the majority of the world’s 200 million students want for their planet and themselves as global citizens.

In doing so, universities are indeed distancing themselves from the obstinate global ranking systems that fail to promote quality and equality. Additionally, although their engagement in such networks may mean an extra effort in terms of resources and shifts in planning and policies, it testifies to their collective power and impact despite the inevitable financial competition in which they are individually positioned.

Shifting in line with Agenda 2030

As higher education institutions are assuming a pioneering position in endorsing the SDGs, the time is ripe for the global university ranking systems to revisit their indicators and adapt their perceptions and measurements to the “future we all want”.

To this end, the outcomes of the survey led by the Global Alliance of university and college sustainability networks may provide clues to the most pressing challenges higher education institutions face in delivering on the SDGs and may therefore facilitate development and adaptation of realistic indicators.

In fact, the need for a coherent overarching system to integrate and report on the SDGs is clearly indicated in the annual report to the United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development published as part of the SDG Accord mandatory institutional reporting (2018).

The higher education institutions report that they are currently “overburdened with reporting in the education arena, and there is little coherence in the vying performance improvement tools, quality standards and reporting accreditations”.

The report also shows that a majority of participating higher education institutions face challenges in reporting on SDGs due to a lack of staff capacity and resources and the lack of a commonly agreed external SDG framework, as well as issues in internal planning and the integration of SDGs into what they are already doing.

Time for a rethink

It is evident that in an era of sustainable development, the global university ranking system cannot continue to create parallel realities that contradict the will and the need of higher education institutions and societies.

By developing indicators to measure SDG delivery, the global ranking systems can serve as an external push factor in raising awareness about SDGs among academics and students and can further advance the implementation of the SDGs in higher education institutions.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings have, of course, taken steps to focus on the social impact of universities and has been quick in shifting its primary attention on university’s business interactions in February 2018 to measuring institutions’ success in delivering the SDGs in September 2018.

But we will have to wait until April 2019 and the Times Higher Education Innovation and Impact Summit in South Korea to study and comment on the coverage, relevance and application of this new system of ranking.

Therefore, despite my own epistemological stance against the multiplication of overlapping and futile vertical rankings, it is perhaps fair to say that there is a small window available for global university ranking systems to reinvent themselves in line with Agenda 2030.

This is a unique opportunity for these systems to revisit their utility, relevance and impact and look at how they can foster quality, inclusion, equity, equality and sustainability before they become ‘left behind’ by higher education institutions, their staff and students, who have already taken solid steps towards sustainable development.

Dr Juliette Torabian is a senior international adviser in education and sustainable development. Her research mainly focuses on comparative higher education (policy and governance), social justice and gender equality.