• New impact rankings highlight the transformational achievements of universities that actively support the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • The results reveal that traditional measures of institutional prestige are not always aligned with social and environmental contributions.

The extraordinary potential of universities to make the world a better place has perhaps never been more clearly demonstrated than it has by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plaudits will rightly focus on the University of Oxford for its lead role in the rapid development of an effective vaccine with AstraZeneca, Johns Hopkins University for keeping the world informed about the spread of the pandemic, through its renowned Coronavirus Resource Center and Imperial College London’s Covid Response Team for the models that informed public policy responses to the virus.

But such headline-grabbing contributions from leading institutions can overshadow the quiet armies of academics across the world, at both household name universities – and the less celebrated, less wealthy and less prestigious institutions – who are making a transformational social and economic impact on the world in myriad diverse ways.

Today this extraordinary global impact is laid out in a pioneering university ranking: The Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings. These are based not on traditional measures such as wealth, prestige or intensive research output, but on a series of more than 100 metrics and over 200 measurements, designed to capture universities’ contribution towards each and every one of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals – from Good Health and Wellbeing (SDG3) and Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG8), to action on poverty (SDG1), climate (SDG13), equality and the environment.

Seventeen separate rankings for each individual SDG and an overall global ranking have been created to properly recognize and reward universities’ extraordinary impact on their communities, their nations and the world across four areas: research, teaching, outreach and stewardship (how they manage their own affairs – mainly their estates and people).

The new performance data helps to identify and share best practice, encourage collaboration between universities, industry and government – and we hope, incentivize further action. It also provides a powerful new to resource to help students decide where to study. A survey of 2,000 prospective international students, conducted in March 2021 by Times Higher Education’s (THE) consultancy team found that 79% believe that universities have an important role to play in achieving the SDGs, while 9% said sustainability was the most important factor in determining their university choice.

First launched in 2019, the response to the new ranking has been inspiring. While fewer than 500 institutions took part at its inception, the 2021 edition contains a staggering 1,240 universities from 98 countries or regions, sharing vast amounts of data to present a fresh new vision of what excellence in higher education really looks like – and shaking-up traditional notions of the world’s best universities.

The UK’s University of Manchester ranks first in the world overall, and also takes first place for both SDG11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) and SDG12 (Responsible Consumption and Production).

The University of Manchester's President, Dame Nancy Rothwell, says, “We believe that universities exist for public benefit. To support this, we have placed social responsibility as one of our core goals for the past decade… We are pleased to be part of a growing community of universities committed to measuring and sharing their social impact.”

Universities are here to address the big questions and challenges facing our world, and there’s no better framework for this than the UN’s SDGs which apply to all countries and sectors of society.

—Dame Nancy Rothwell, President, The University of Manchester.

The top 10 in the overall ranking includes universities from seven countries, and three continents – showing a true, united global focus on the goals. That global focus is even more apparent when you look at the top 100 in the overall ranking, with 24 countries and regions appearing from six continents.

Aside from ground-breaking research, Manchester points out that it offers £15 million a year in financial support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to support equality; has committed to zero carbon by 2038; is divesting from fossil fuels; and has already eliminated more than 250,000 pieces of avoidable single-use plastics, to name just a few initiatives that support the global goals.

The rankings across each individual SDG demonstrate the richly diverse range of institutions leading the world in key areas – not just prestigious institutions in the west or global north that tend to lead traditional university rankings but universities from across the world’s continents.

Mexico’s Metropolitan Autonomous University, a key member of Mexico’s National Crusade Against Hunger, leads for SDG2 (Zero Hunger). Thailand’s King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi, which launched its Green University Development Policy back in 2010 to integrate sustainability into all activities – across operations, teaching and research – leads for its development and use of Affordable and Clean Energy (SDG7). South Africa’s University of Johannesburg leads the world for its leadership in promoting Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG8). Institutions from the UK, US, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Canada also top individual lists across an extraordinary range of activities and impacts.

From the international teams of biomedical scientists who defeated the odds to deliver treatments and vaccines to fight COVID-19, to the social scientists helping us to understand and mitigate the profound socio-economic fall-out of the virus, to the arts and humanities scholars bringing vital critical thinking and communications skills to help us all imagine a different future for humanity – it’s clear that universities, across disciplines and across borders, will be vital to leading us out of the current health, economic and social crisis to re-build stronger.

We must be in no doubt – universities will have just as vital a role to play in preparing the world for the next pandemic, and other existential global challenges such as the climate crisis.

At THE we hope that this pioneering new performance data will help universities to provide evidence of the extraordinary impact they already have – as well as to gain the recognition and public support, to collaborate and galvanize, in preparation for the world-changing challenges to yet to come.