Impact rankings highlight community role of universities

There is an ongoing debate about the role of higher education institutions in the context of intensified competition globally, new technology and industrial structural change – the advent of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ – and ever-increasing stakeholder expectations.

The recent Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings – based on universities’ work towards 11 of the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – provide another important lens on what universities are and can evolve into, in terms of their contribution to solutions to complex global and local challenges and their ability to make a difference by adding value to local and regional communities in a sustainable manner, as exemplified by the SDGs.

A previous article in University World News has outlined the technical aspects of the new impact ranking. Suffice to say, any university that provided data on SDG 17 (Partnerships), and at least three others, is included in the overall ranking.

The University Impact Rankings span the broad parameters of research, outreach and stewardship, the latter pertaining strongly to the natural environment.

India’s performance

It is worth noting that India has 12 institutions in the rankings out of 466 globally, giving it an approximate share of 3% of overall global rankings. This is broadly on a par with its share of globally ranked institutions in the ‘mainstream’ Times Higher Education World University Rankings, where India has 49 out of 1,258 institutions.

India’s best performing institution, the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur (IIT Kharagpur) is ranked at between 101-200, putting it in the top 25%-50% of institutions. This is a reasonably heartening result.

Beyond this, it is also interesting that, apart from the best-ranked Indian institution, there is a preponderance of non-IIT institutions among the 12. The traditional rankings tend to be dominated by India’s famed elite, but smallish IITs have produced leading alumni in many different fields.

That the 12 in the University Impact Rankings constitute a broader set of institutions could reflect two features: one is the growing strength of institutions more generally in India, but a more likely explanation is that the nature of the criteria used in the impact rankings brings into play other institutions than the traditional heavily research-intensive ones.

Globally, the University Impact Rankings are led by Japan, with 41 of its institutions represented, followed by the United States with 31, Russia with 30 and the United Kingdom with 26. This somewhat bucks the trend in terms of the usual ranking performance of the US, UK (although both the US and UK perform well), Germany and other European nations, for example.

Undoubtedly, it reflects the nature of the University Impact Rankings focusing on the SDGs and the criteria underpinning the rankings, which include outreach as well as lower participation levels in these rankings compared to the traditional rankings. For example, Germany has only two overall ranked institutions and the normally prolific China has only three ranked institutions.

Given that it is early days for the ranking, resource-strapped universities may be reluctant initially to embrace it and may also be concerned that the risks of possible lost reputation or their lack of explicit focus on the SDGs may outweigh any benefits.

It is also instructive that in the case of the US and the UK, the ‘usual suspects’, the sandstone research-intensive institutions, are absent.

Another interesting point is that emerging nations in Pakistan, Malaysia and Brazil are strongly represented. It is likely that institutions from these countries have the SDGs as driving forces explicitly for their research and other priorities and activities. This could be part of a broader engagement that the UN has in many developing countries.

Challenges for the future

Drilling down further by SDG for India reveals some important issues. India is reasonably well represented across the SDGs. In particular, in raw terms (but not necessarily when judged against the total number of institutions ranked globally by SDG), the highest number of ranked Indian institutions for the selected goals are found in ‘Quality Education’, ‘Good Health’, ‘Gender Equality’, ‘Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure’ and ‘Decent Work and Economic Growth’.

Certainly, India faces issues and challenges in all of these areas, including poor health outcomes and emergent ‘lifestyle’ health issues and the need to provide high-quality education for all, to lift gross enrolment ratios, address historic and deep-seated gender inequity and to improve the performance of industry, especially manufacturing, and its connections with institutions of learning, as well as employment outcomes.

SDG areas that require attention from Indian higher education institutions are, however, in the related areas of climate action, sustainable cities and communities and responsible consumption and production in order to address India’s parlous environmental situation, among other things. Further effort is also needed in transforming India’s many moribund institutions, including legal ones, to better serve its communities.

Student experience

Overall, the Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings are welcome as a further addition to the rankings schema and to the debate about the role and functions of higher education institutions.

It could be further enhanced, although there are understandable difficulties in doing so, by explicitly quantifying and including positive multiplier effects of university activities and priorities on the economy, society and the environment.

Furthermore, the impact of these on student experience could be factored into data on delivering the SDGs. Students are still the lifeblood of institutions.

For India, the results are encouraging in terms of institutions’ participation in the exercise and their ability to meet the thresholds. The idea of universities in India directly and explicitly serving the needs of their communities, allied to the SDGs, is entirely appropriate if they are to address India’s (and the world’s) many challenges.

Dr Anand Kulkarni is associate director, planning, performance and risk at Victoria University, Australia.