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AU-Duncan-Ross
Origen: Ashoka
This article originally appeared on Stanford Social Innovation Review

Times Higher Education has been producing university rankings since 2004, both to comment on the higher education sector and to serve as as an advocate for it, and in 2017, we began developing a set of university rankings based on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated not only our planet’s interconnected nature but the urgency of building sustainability, and the 17 interlinked SDGs serve as a road map toward a more sustainable, resilient future. All elements of society need to play their part, and we believe that higher education is well-positioned to demonstrate its relevance to society by placing the SDGs at the center of best practices.

By bringing together sustainability and higher education, we believe we can both demonstrate the progress that universities are making and support them in moving more quickly and effectively toward delivering on the goals. We’ve been in the business of ranking universities for a while, but as we’ve learned how to collect and analyze data over almost two decades, we’ve also learned how influential these rankings can be. We realized we had an opportunity to leverage our core competence in rankings as a strategic lever in the field of higher education, to fashion something new and evaluate a different kind of game: social impact.

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Ashoka insight

Adopting the Sustainable Development Goals as a target—and using this ranking as a metric—offers real opportunities for universities in a time of increasing challenges:

Reconnecting to Core Values | Social impact has always been an imperative for universities, whether implicitly or explicitly, but it frequently gets subsumed by funding mechanisms, or by the needs of teaching and research. However, the expansion, massification, and universalization of higher education makes the funding requirements for universities far more visible, which in turn requires universities better demonstrate their importance to society.

Market differentiation | Even at an individual institutional level there is a need to be able to distinguish one university from another. At Times Higher Education we estimate that only approximately 5,000 of the world’s 22,000 universities could claim to be “research led.” Once you step away from the small number of truly international “superbrands,” how can a university demonstrate its relevance to the people funding it and living beside it? That difference may come from universities that tackle the impact agenda.

Behavioral change | There are signs that this approach to measuring impact is having a direct positive impact on behavior. We are seeing universities putting out more of their policies as public documents, leadership taking stronger stances on sustainability, and sustainability teams arguing for increased action as a result of the work they have done.