Times Higher Education Impact Rankings and how education can lead to a better, more equitable world

The new Times Higher Education Impact Rankings may help to shed light on what education should be striving to achieve. That current and future generations receive an education that will help them to understand what the planet and its people needs to survive.

This important ranking looks at over 500 universities worldwide and asks them to show what they are doing with regards to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, goals intended to ensure a fairer, balanced and sustainable world. This article was written for College Champittet, Switzerland.

In the world of education, we should hope that the work we do with our students will be useful in their lives and will also give them the tools they need to improve our world. This being the objective, educators must carefully consider developments taking place locally and globally and understand how higher level educational institutions are adapting to the needs of this planet and its people.

Today, the picture of the world is complex. We live in a place where inequality, poverty, corruption, climate change, environmental degradation and discrimination are the order of the day. For this reason, the United Nations, under the leadership of the former Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, in agreement with 194 nation states, decided to establish the Sustainable Development Goals which should be achieved by 2030.

According to the United Nations, the Sustainable Development Goals are “the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”. They address the global challenges already mentioned, and the ultimate goal would be to achieve peace and justice for everyone. There are 17 SDGS and SDG Goal 4 aims at achieving inclusive and quality education for all, a vital goal in view of the number of people in the world who have never had this access to education at all. However, this is also important in developed countries with adequate educational possibilities as it is critical that their institutions concentrate on issues that are vital to our survival.

Teaching Excellence Framework and The Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings

When trying to understand the quality and importance of higher level education institutions, rankings have become an important tool for parents, counsellors and educators in a complex global system. The Times Higher Education Rankings and the QS Rankings are two of the best known systems although other systems also exist in parallel. 

Criticism of Ranking systems

There is no lack of critics and criticism of our rankings system and Associate Professor Quing Zha, Faculty of Education, York University, sums this up when he says “University rankings are often criticised for bias towards the natural sciences and English language science journals; for emphasizing research expenditures (such as grants and contracts) as the prime measure of scientific accomplishments rather than the importance and impact of scientific discoveries or the depth of the ideas; for not taking into account important activities of the university (e.g., teaching quality) that are less easily measured. Put succinctly, university rankings are largely based on what can be measured rather than what is necessarily relevant and important to the university.”

I tend to agree and would go a step further and say that we need to measure not only what is relevent and important for individual universities but for our society as a whole. Our society needs an educational system that helps people understand and tackle complex issues, using holistic approaches for holistic learning and solutions. So how do we do that ?

Quality of teaching and a different Ranking system

Let’s start by looking at two important issues in our educational system today – the quality of teaching in our third level institutions and the content of courses, programs and research in terms of their relevance to finding solutions needed in our confused and chaotic society.

In my opinion, the quality of teaching and teachers and relevance of the material to our people and its planet should be of the utmost importance if we as educators are readying our youth for their futures. When talking about quality of education it is worth mentioning the Teaching Excellence Framework, (TEF), a system measuring the quality of teaching of undergraduate programs first introduced by the UK government in 2017. The TEF is a resource for students to judge teaching quality in universities and to help increase the importance of teaching excellence when judging institutions.

Universities are awarded gold, silver and bronze awards depending on their results. Gold shows that a university has shown the best quality of teaching standards and outcomes for students and has great physical and digital resources. A silver rating shows that the university is a high quality one that regularly exceeds the quality expected of higher education institutions in this category. A bronze rating means that the provision of the university is satisfactory. Most students will achieve good outcomes, but the institution could do much better.

The Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings – and the Sustainable Development Goals

The second issue I would like to discuss is educational institutions who simply continue their “business as usual” attitude i.e. who are cited in conventional ranking systems, continue to work with conventional programs and courses and put emphasis on the number of articles published in well-known journals; as opposed to those who are working with a new ranking system – the Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings (THE), aimed at universities teaching undergraduate programs. THE has just published their ranking of global performance tables assessing universities performance against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A very important development, in my opinion.

This is the progress I have anxiously awaited for many years, a ranking system that measures how universities are integrating social, economic and cultural necessities into their courses, programs and research. Universities that are preparing students to find solutions and take action in our ever-changing world.

Which SDGs are included in this ranking system?

As already stated, there are 17 UN SDGs in all and this ranking evaluates university performance on 11 of them. The SDGS to be considered are:

►SDG 3 – Good health and well-being ►SDG 4 – Quality education ►SDG 5 – Gender equality ►SDG 8 – Decent work and economic growth ►SDG 9 – Industry, innovation, and infrastructure ►SDG 10 – Reduced inequalities ►SDG 11 – Sustainable cities and communities ►SDG 12 – Responsible consumption and production►SDG 13 – Climate action ►SDG 16 – Peace, justice and strong institutions►SDG 17 – Partnerships for the goals

551 universities from 80 countries across 17 regions and 6 continents were asked to submit data (462 were ranked) on as many SDGs as they could and each SDG had metrics that were used to judge the university performance in relation to that SDG. Universities must provide data on SDG 17 which looks at partnerships with the private sector – an interesting condition which hopefully would lead to the whole of society (government, civil society, private sector) working together in a more constructive way with educational institutions. 

New kids on the block!

It is interesting to note that the number one universities in the 11 individual SDG tables come from New Zealand, Sweden, Australia, Canada, South Korea, Taiwan, Ireland and the United Kingdom – some very interesting universities (not the usual ones we hear about) doing some very good work. 

Ellie Bothwell, global rankings editor at THE, said the rankings “recognise the fantastic work that universities do for the good of society to tackle some of our most pressing global issues – work that often goes unrecognised and undocumented”.

She said the results “shake up our very notion of what excellence looks like – universities in New Zealand, Canada and the UK sit alongside those in Iran, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia in these pioneering and truly global new rankings”.

Feedback from Auckland University and McMaster Universities

So to conclude, what does society need, what is the role of education and what do the top ranked universities in The Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings believe bring value?

Good health and well-being, gender equality and partnership for the SDG goals led to Auckland university’s great results and they came in first place from the 500 plus universities world-wide who participated. McMaster University, Canada, who were ranked in second place, said “it had been recognised for its deep commitment to the development goals, including good health and well-being, decent work and economic growth, building sustainable cities and communities, achieving gender equity and revitalising global partnerships” .

McMaster University’s President, Patrick Deane, added “We are a global university and it is our responsibility to find ways to help people and our societies improve and benefit from research and education.” 

Shouldn’t this be the aspiration of all universities?


Bhardwa Seeta; What is the TEF? Results of the Teaching Excellence Framework 2018 retrieved 7th May, 2019

Brendan O’Malley and Nic Mitchel; First global impact ranking of universities released



Qiang Zha University Rankings in Perspective in Higher ED
 (May 2016) Retrieved 7th May, 2019

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
Retrieved 7th May, 2019

Why universities must work together to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals
Retrieved 8th May, 2019


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