Developing ESD indicators, the missing link in rankings

As more higher education institutions all over the world are committed to becoming more sustainable, new sustainability rankings are on the rise. From the older UI GreenMetric (first release in 2010) to the more recent but increasingly popular Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings (first release in 2019) and the QS Sustainability University Rankings (first release in 2023), each ranking is aiming to tackle slightly different dimensions of sustainability.

For example, UI GreenMetric indicators have a strong emphasis on operational metrics in the total score (82% in 2022), while the THE Impact Rankings explicitly focus on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), emphasising research and education outputs along with community outreach.

The new rankings often feature universities from all over the world beyond the Ivy League schools, including Europe, Asia, Oceania and often smaller countries. While university rankings are often criticised for promoting competition without considering context, the sustainability rankings have succeeded in drawing attention to the efforts being made by universities worldwide to promote sustainability.

These international rankings are also complemented by smaller national rankings such as the Dutch student-driven SustainaBul (first release in 2012).

But with so many sustainability rankings available, are there any indicators missing?

Education for sustainable development

In 2019, the U-Multirank project team undertook to explore if any of the existing sustainability rankings address ‘education for sustainable development’ (ESD) at higher education institutions. ESD is considered a key component for attaining the SDGs, explicitly addressed in SDG 4 (4.7).

ESD encourages interdisciplinary and systems-level thinking to tackle grand challenges, fostering competencies that are highly demanded from today’s graduates. The research by the U-Multirank team revealed that none of the sustainability rankings had indicators on ESD.

From 2020 to 2022, the U-Multirank consortium brought together international experts and key stakeholders to develop guidelines at the institutional level for ESD indicators. Contributors to the guidelines included Charles Hopkins and Katrin Kohl, UNESCO chair in reorienting education towards sustainability at York University in Canada, and executive coordinator, respectively; Auður Pálsdóttir from the AURORA network at the University of Iceland; and Maria Kirrane from University College Cork in Ireland, among others.

Challenges to ESD indicators

The brief, three-page guidelines highlight challenges in creating internationally comparable ESD indicators and suggest ways forward. These guidelines are not intended as a strict recommendation but rather as a brief reference for sparking further dialogue, particularly in the context of the ESD for 2030 agenda and a global ambition to embed sustainability as a core practice in key structures, programmes and activities within higher education institutions.

One of the key challenges was to find out what ‘counts’ as ESD. For example, one of the proposed indicators of ESD entails measuring the number of ESD courses, minors and programmes. Experts identified at least three types of definitions of ESD:

• Education that focuses on interdisciplinary content around sustainability topics;

• Education that covers both multidisciplinary topics and entails transformational teaching methods, which are the signature of the ESD approach;

• Field-specific education embedded in education (for example, sustainable travel and tourism in tourism studies or green supply chains in business studies).

Another challenge was posed by the complexity of collecting the data that are needed for calculating the indicator scores. A survey among 256 university representatives revealed that 80% planned to collect data on ESD courses and programmes by mid-2024 (using their own definitions), and 40% had already collected such data in 2019. Data collection was somewhat easier as the universities used their own definitions when collecting the data.

For the indicator ‘ESD alumni in sustainability-related jobs’ the data collection process was more complex as jobs needed to be categorised as sustainability related and alumni needed to be traced and queried. Because of this complexity, only 20% of respondents were collecting such data in 2019.

Shared vision and ongoing dialogue

The development of internationally comparable ESD indicators requires a shared vision and an ongoing dialogue among diverse stakeholders. The brief guidelines provide six principles that can hopefully contribute to this vision and spark further dialogue. The principles suggest that ESD indicators should be flexible enough to recognise diverse efforts and take a system-wide approach.

While ESD focuses on education (as the name suggests), it relies on a transformational learning environment, best achieved by embedding sustainability throughout the institution, including operations, policies and engagement with society.

Luckily, higher education institutions do not need to reinvent the wheel and can leverage existing frameworks, such as the one proposed by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, to recognise existing efforts and develop new initiatives.

Universities need to select their sustainability indicators mindfully, aligned with their own needs rather than following the latest trends.

Frans Kaiser and Anete Veidemane are researchers at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, and are part of the U-Multirank project team. To access “Guidelines for Developing ‘Education for Sustainable Development’ (ESD) Indicators at Higher Education Institutions: How to develop relevant and internationally comparable indicators” click here. You can provide feedback by getting in touch with Frans Kaiser (e-mail: or Anete Veidemane (e-mail: