Why progress on Impact Rankings matters amid COVID

The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings measure a range of issues, from stewardship, research, outreach and community engagement to partnerships and policy advice to governments, issues that are crucial in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

This year shows the growing importance that institutions are placing in the ranking. In 2021 there are 1,115 ranked institutions compared to 768 last year, with the countries that have most significantly increased their presence being Russia and India.

The number of globally ranked institutions from India has almost doubled, from 26 to 49, and reflects the fact that a great many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) bear directly on the core challenges that India faces when it comes to poverty, gender equity, urbanisation and climate change.

India’s best ranked institution is Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, which achieved a very creditable 81st place overall and is the only Indian institution in the top 100. Some 15 Indian institutions are ranked inside the top 600, roughly in the top half, which again is encouraging.

Overall, India’s share of ranked institutions has gone up from 3.4% last year to 4.4% this year and its share of overall ranked institutions is slightly higher than that in the conventional Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

Drilling down into the rankings per SDG, we observe that apart from UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 17: Partnerships for the goals (which is mandatory for consideration for the ranking), India has its highest number of institutions ranked for SDG 4: Quality education (40), followed by SDG 5: Gender equality (34), SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation (33), SDG 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure (31), SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy (27), SDG 3: Good health and well-being (26) and SDG 1: No poverty (23).

This is a good performance and reflects areas of need and challenge.

There is some unevenness, though, in that there are far fewer ranked institutions in other areas of challenge, including SDG 14: Life below water (five ranked institutions), SDG 2: Zero hunger (nine), SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities (nine), SDG 15: Life on land (11) and SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production (13).

Issues around natural resource management, biodiversity, sustainable consumerism and rapid urbanisation are important, however, and warrant more attention.

SDG 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions (15), SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth (15), SDG 13: Climate action (16) and SDG 10: Reduced inequalities (18) all display a moderately solid performance.

Differences between the rankings schema

What is also interesting is the apparent disconnect between India’s performance in the various rankings. While India has a strong core of ranked institutions (40) in quality education in the Impact Rankings, in the Times Higher Education Subject Rankings there are no ranked Indian institutions at all in the education field, a glaring gap.

This has much to do with the different criteria used in the various rankings and the fact that institutions that participate in the various rankings differ in their scope, priority and mission.

A similar disconnect is observed between India’s moderate performance in the UN SDG 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions (15 institutions are ranked in the Impact Rankings) and the fact that no institutions are ranked in law in the subject rankings.

However, there is a stronger link between the two rankings when it comes to the subject fields of physical sciences, engineering and technology and, to a lesser extent, computer science.

Interestingly, among the top 600 globally ranked institutions in the Impact Rankings, most Indian institutions are newer, private sector ones. It would appear that more emerging private sector providers are taking part in the Impact Rankings, or at least meeting the criteria, compared to the mainstream rankings, although they are increasingly engaging with the latter.

Furthermore, what is intriguing is that these emerging private sector players are engaging with the typical public good and community issues implicit in the UN SDGs, indicating that they have multi-faceted missions whereas India’s leading public sector institutions, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institute of Science, engage much more with the traditional world university rankings and subject rankings.

This reflects their priorities and more traditional outlook. For example, in the Impact Rankings, there are only very few IITs represented and they are in the lower reaches of the ranking.

Traumatic experiences

At present, India is in the midst of dire and traumatic experiences associated with COVID-19, with new cases surpassing 350,000 a day last week and hospitals unable to cope with the surge. To emerge from this situation will require a concerted national (and international) effort from all segments of the economy and society to address the many different challenges facing the nation.

Having institutions represented more widely across the SDGs and having more institutions generally engaging in the Impact Rankings could be a significant step to developing the requisite capabilities, partnerships and community engagement to face challenging times.

Certainly, at least in relation to the Impact Rankings, India is making good progress, but more can and should be done.

Dr Anand Kulkarni is associate director, planning, performance and risk at Victoria University, Australia, and author of India and the Knowledge Economy. The views here are the author’s entirely.