New sustainability rankings list 16 universities from Africa

South Africa has the highest number of universities in Africa that are featured in the first QS World University Rankings: Sustainability 2023, a new ranking classification that provides a framework on how universities are doing in accelerating environmental and social change globally.

In total, South Africa has nine universities in the new rankings, representing about 50% of the African continent. Only 16 universities in six countries on the continent have been rated out of the 700 institutions that have been included from a total list of 1,300.

Indicators that are used include: environmental impact (sustainable education with a weighting of 40%; sustainable institutions – 35%; and sustainable research – 25%); social impact (employment and opportunities – 20%; equality – 30%; life quality – 10%; impact of education – 20%; and knowledge exchange – 20%).

As such, the ranking focuses on aspects relating to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These include the impact of universities (alumni outcomes, research impact) on the environment and society, rather than operational measures and internal processes at universities.

The other African countries that are represented include Egypt, with three institutions, while Ghana, Morocco, Tunisia and Uganda each have one university in the group.

The University of Cape Town, in South Africa, has emerged as the frontrunner in Africa having been placed in position 132 globally. The University of Johannesburg and the University of Pretoria, both from South Africa, are also among the top 200 universities globally as they are in the 171-180 band.

Professor Tawana Kupe, vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria (UP), said the university does not chase after rankings for the sake of it, but undertakes research that yields positive results for the communities it serves, as well as for the continent as a whole.

“Making a positive difference in the environment and in people’s lives is one of UP’s preoccupations,” he added in a statement issued by the university.

Cairo University in Egypt has been placed in the 201-220 category. It is the only African university outside South Africa that is placed among the top 400 universities globally.

Other continental peers in the top 400 include the University of the Witwatersrand (201-220), Stellenbosch University (241-260), North-West University (281-300) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (321-340), all South African institutions.

Makerere University of Uganda, Mansoura University of Egypt and the University of Tunis El Manar in Tunisia have been placed in the 551-600 band.

Five other universities have been placed in the 601+ band. These include the Ain Shams University of Egypt, Morocco’s Mohammed V University in Rabat, the University of Ghana, as well as two South African universities, Rhodes and the Western Cape.

According to Simona Bizzozero, the director of communications at QS Quacquarelli Symonds, the new sustainability rankings are based on environmental and social impacts.

“Environmental impact assessment took into account three indicators: sustainable institutions, sustainable education and sustainable research. The social impact summed up five indicators that included equality, knowledge exchange, impact on education, employability and opportunities, as well as quality of life,” Bizzozero told University World News.

Ahead of the launch of the rankings on October 26, Leigh Kamolins, the director of analytics and evaluation at QS Quacquarelli Symonds stated there is a need to create awareness that universities have the expertise and opportunity to drive sustainable development forward.

“It is saddening to know that the world’s progress towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, has slowed for the second year in a row,” said Kamolins.

Frontrunners in specific indicator categories

In the recently released sustainability rankings, the University of Cape Town achieved high scores in four metrics: employability and opportunities, sustainable research, quality of life and equality.

This suggests that the university has been working hard on a wide range of SDGs that include eradication of poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being. It has also been achieving good results in reducing inequalities, provision of clean water and sanitation and gender equality.

According to Bizzozero the University of Pretoria was the continental leader in the QS sustainable institutions indicator, a yardstick that is used to measure institutional strategy and operations directed towards an environmentally sustainable future.

“UP’s top shows how the university’s strategy and operations are best positioned towards achieving an environmentally sustainable future. Sustainable education shows how the university educates students to understand and make a difference in the environment. It also shows the positive impact of the research the university is producing in areas aligned to specific SDGs,” the institution said in a statement following the release of the ranking information.

The University of Pretoria is also highly rated as a national and continental leader towards provision of sustainable education, an indicator that is used to assess how the universities are educating students to understand and resolve environmental issues.

Earlier this year, UP launched the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) South Africa. According to the institution this is an international initiative that marshals global scientific and technological expertise to promote practical solutions for sustainable development. The aim of the national network is to mobilise and support South African universities and other leading research institutions to promote the UN’s SDGs in South Africa, as well as the country’s contribution to the goals globally.

Similarly, Stellenbosch University has been rated a continental leader for knowledge transfer, an indicator that acknowledges the university as a hub for domestic and international collaboration in research and to improve academic standards beyond South Africa. Other African universities that scored well in this aspect include Makerere, North-West and Cairo, in that order, respectively.

Furthermore, the University of the Witwatersrand achieved the highest score among African universities in ‘educating for the society’, an indicator that is based on research output aligned to the SDG goal on quality education, as well as the QS academic and alumni surveys that consider academic freedom and the net flow of internationally mobile students and gross graduation ratio.

Helping universities to face global challenges

Dr Andrew MacFarlane, rankings manager at QS Quacquarelli Symonds, said the sustainability criteria of grading institutions looked at signs that the university was committed to and was already making a difference to society.

“We hope this new ranking will intensify the efforts of universities to help meet the global challenges we all face,” said MacFarlane.

In this regard, Bizzozero told University World News that an international student survey that was conducted by QS Quacquarelli Symonds earlier this year (2022) established that while 81% of respondents felt that universities are environmentally friendly, two thirds of students felt that universities could do more.

In this context, Bizzozero explained that there are indicators that the members of Generation Z – those born between 1997 to 2012 – may be considered to be passionate about action to safeguard the environment. Generation Z sees action on environmental and social change as a non-negotiable public agenda.

At the global stage, new universities appear to be doing much better on environmental sustainability and social change as compared to the traditional academic top performers.

Within that context, the University of California, Berkeley in the United States was at the top of the QS World University Rankings: Sustainability 2023, while two Canadian institutions, the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia were placed second and third respectively.