Times Higher release SDG rankings

23rd April 2020

SDG rankings – who, what, when, where, why?

Times Higher Education (THE) released their Global Impact rankings on Wednesday, 22nd April, timed well with Earth Day. This is the second year of reporting for these relatively new rankings, and the findings are always interesting for the sector.
The rankings look at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ask institutions across the world to submit information to them about their performance regarding the 169 SDG targets. It is useful to have this information, but there is always a little conjecture in the sector about whether the quantitative nature of these rankings truly reflects an institutions performance on the SDGs, and whether ranking itself is that helpful.
There are certainly some UK and Ireland institutions that are doing brilliant things towards the SDGs missing from the 43 institutions that took part this year. However, the rankings do shine a light on some of the extraordinary institutions doing great work on the SDGs, that deserve to be recognised and celebrated.
Why is it important that institutions embed the SDGs holistically?
We won’t go into this in too much detail, as there is already a lot of article out there on this, including several of our own. But in summary, integrating the SDGs into universities and colleges does two things – one sensibly selfish and the other selfless.
First, the SDGs offer universities an effective, integrated and uniform way to map and communicate their impact on society and the world. When being seen as ‘civic’ is a necessity in the sector (universities and colleges should always be civic – but with the rise of consciousness and conscientiousness in students on the climate crisis, the tuition fees hike, and with the lens of a global pandemic – there has never been such a strong need to be, and be perceived as, civic), the SDGs offer a civic roadmap.
Second, by working towards the SDGs, an institution puts its considerable financial, geographic, and academic weight behind tackling global and domestic deprivations and injustices.
If you’re interested in joining the movement to integrate SDGs into universities and colleges – sign up to the SDG Accord. Equally, if you are looking to work out what your SDG impact looks like – you should also get involved with the Sustainability Leadership Scorecard.
What do the Global Impact rankings say?

Looking at the results globally – New Zealand and Australia dominated, taking the top 4 positions. The UK and Ireland held it’s 2 top 10 positions, slipping down slightly from last year. The top 2 institutions in the UK and Ireland for the second-year running are University of Manchester and King’s College London, who came in at 8th and 9th position respectively. They would have been the highest ranking in Europe, but instead take 2nd and 3rd position in Europe, pipped to the post by Italy, whose University of Bologna took 6th place overall.
The rankings had 766 institutions take part, and the UK and Ireland had 25 institutions in the top 100. This is an increase on last year’s 22. Though it should be noted that 807 institutions took park in SDG 17 - meaning that an additional 41 institutions likely took part, but did not input enough information to gain a ranking spot.
When it comes to methodology – it is fair and right that people have questions. Times Higher have some answers here about how they have calculated all this. We certainly have questions:
  • Is it fair to calculate these scores based on quantitative data without considering more qualitative information?
  • Is it robust to calculate a score based on their input to only 4 of the SDGs (SDG 17 and their highest ranked remaining scores)?
  • Does this help encourage institutions to work on the SDGs they are not doing enough towards, or simply encourage them to focus on a few they are doing well on?
  • Does this really encourage collaboration or does it pit institutions against each other?
We already know some of the answers. But we are still supportive of these rankings, because if it does absolutely nothing else, it brings mainstream attention to the need for integration of the SDGs into education, and highlights the role of education in all of the SDGs (not just SDG 4).
So who entered from the UK and Ireland and how did they do?
As an organisation, we support institutions in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Ireland – as such, we are including institutions in all of these countries in our analysis.
The 43 UK and Ireland institutions that voluntarily reported are listed below, ranked by their overall position globally:
8 University of Manchester
 9 King’s College London
=11 University of Leeds
=11 Newcastle University
14 Trinity College Dublin
21 University of Leicester
27 Northumbria University
30 University of Edinburgh
32 University College Cork
34 University College Dublin
43 Glasgow Caledonian University
44 University of Dundee
52 University of Worcester
57 Nottingham Trent University
59 University of Surrey
64 De Montfort University
=68 Bangor University
=68 National University of Ireland, Galway
70 University of Strathclyde
=73 University of Aberdeen
=73 Keele University
84  Dublin City University
87 Queen’s University Belfast
90 Bournemouth University
99 Brunel University London
101–200 City, University of London
101–200 Durham University
101–200 University of East Anglia
101–200 University of East London
101–200 University of Greenwich
101–200 London South Bank University
101-200 Maynooth University
101- 200 University of Limerick
101–200 University of Portsmouth
101-200 RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences
101–200 SOAS University of London
101–200 University of Westminster
201–300 Bath Spa University
201–300 University of Cumbria
201–300 University of Winchester
301–400 Solent University
401–600 Arts University Bournemouth
401- 600 Technological University Dublin
The biggest change in terms of the Impact Rankings reporting this year was that institutions could submit information against all 17 of the SDGs. Last year, institutions could only submit against 11. It is worth noting that some of these institutions will have excelled at certain SDGs and not input data to others. They are only required to input information to 4 of the SDGs as a minimum, with one needing to be SDG 17.
In numbers – the UK and Ireland institutions:
  •  The number of UK and Ireland institutions reporting to the Global Impact rankings this year rose to 43, up by 11 on last year.
  • 4 universities took part last year, but did not take part this year: University of Southampton, Queen Mary University of London, UCL, The Open University.
  • There were 15 new institutions in the UK and Ireland taking part this year: University of Leeds, Northumbria University, University of Edinburgh, Nottingham Trent University, National University of Ireland, Galway, Queen’s University Belfast, City, University of London, University of East London, Maynooth University, University of Portsmouth, RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Westminster, Bath Spa University, University of Cumbria, Technological University Dublin.
  • The UK and Ireland had 25 institutions in the top 100. This is an increase on last year’s 22.
  • There were 299 more institutions that input into the ranking globally this year, a global total of 766. That explains why many of the UK and Ireland institutions went down in the rankings despite keeping relatively similar overall ranking scores. Even the two highest scoring institutions lost ranking places, with top ranked UK institution University of Manchester down from 3rd place last year, to 8th place this year. King’s College London similarly ranked 5th place last year, and this year came in at 9th place.
  • This makes it all the more impressive that 8 UK and Ireland institutions actually moved up in the rankings this year. They are: Newcastle University, Trinity College Dublin, University of Leicester, University College Dublin, Glasgow Caledonian University, University of Surrey, Bangor University, Dublin City University. The biggest climb in UK and Ireland rankings was from the University of Surrey, who moved up from 100th place last year, to 59th place this year. Bangor University also showed an impressive climb, moving from 101-200 last year, to 68th place this year. Higher up the table there were impressive moves from University College Dublin, who moved 24 places to 34th this year, University of Leicester, who moved up 17 places to 21st, Trinity College Dublin moved up 14 places to 14th and Newcastle University moved up 13 places to joint 11th
  • Several of the new entries for this year came in strong, and none more so in the UK than University of Leeds, who debuted at no. 11 alongside Newcastle University.
Looking at the SDGs individually - who did well on which SDG?
Institutions will be better at some SDGs over others, so looking at the SDGs individually allows us to see which institutions in the UK and Ireland did particularly well in which of the SDGs.
We have broken the rankings down, and below represents the top 3 ranked institutions in the UK and Ireland for each of the SDGs. The ranking represents their ranked place in that specific SDG globally.
Goal 1 - No Poverty
5 - University College Cork
7 - University of Leeds
13 - King's College London
Goal 2 - Zero hunger
12 - University College Cork
28 - University of Manchester
59 - Queen's University Belfast
Goal 3 - Good Health and Wellbeing
1 - RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences
9 - University of Dundee
11 - King's College London
Goal 4 - Quality Education
9 - University of Cumbria
49 - Maynooth University
57 - University of East London
Goal 5 - Gender Equality
3 - Trinity College Dublin
5 - University of Worcester
8 - University of East London
SDG 6 - Clean Water and Sanitation
10 - University of Strathclyde
40 - De Montfort University
59 - SOAS
SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy
17 - University of Leeds
22 - University of Manchester
26 - Trinity College Dublin
Goal 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth
9 - University of Surrey
13 - Glasgow Caledonian University
16 - King's College London
Goal 9 - Industry, innovation and infrastructure
7 - Imperial College London
22 - University of Manchester
25 University College Dublin
Goal 10 - Reduced Inequalities
2 - University of East London
6 - Trinity College Dublin
7 - University of Leeds
Goal 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities
5 - Trinity College Dublin
6 - Newcastle University
7 - King's College London
Goal 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production
3 - University of Manchester
4 - Nottingham Trent University
7 Bangor University
Goal 13 - Climate Action
26 - University of Dundee
32 - SOAS
34 Bournemouth University
Goal 14 - Life below Water
8 - University College Cork
10 - National University of Ireland, Galway
17 - Queen's University Belfast
Goal 15 - Life on Land
1 - University of Leicester
8 - Queen's University Belfast
9 - Nottingham Trent University
Goal 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
5 - SOAS
8 - Northumbria University
11 - King's College London
Goal 17 - Partnerships for the Goals
2  -University of Leeds
4 - University of Edinburgh
4 - King's College London
First thing to note is that this year, UK and Ireland occupy two no.1 slots. This is the same number as last year, but interestingly, they are for completely different Goals. The SDGs that the UK and Ireland gained No.1 slots for last year were SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production – University College Cork) and SDG 17 (Partnerships for the Goals – University of Manchester). This year, we have gained the top spot for SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being - RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences) and SDG 15 (Life on Land – University of Leicester).
As mentioned, this year the rankings looked at all 17 of the SDGs, while last year they looked at 11 of them. So the rankings for SDG1, SDG2, SDG 6, SDG7, SDG 14 and SDG 15 are all completely new.
We did fairly well on SDG 1 (No Poverty), with 2 institutions in the top 10, but significantly less well in SDG 2 (Zero Hunger)– University College Cork was the highest ranking in the UK and Ireland on both at No.5 and No.12 respectively.
SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being) was a triumph, with commendation going to RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Ireland for occupying the top spot globally.
SDG 4 (Quality Education), probably the most well known by the education sector, is a fairly interesting ranking this year. The UK and Ireland did not feature highly at all – with the exception of the University of Cumbria. A new entry for this year’s ranking, University of Cumbria’s overall score is 201-300, and yet they have come in at 9th on SDG 4 (Quality Education) – by far the best in the UK and Ireland with the second highest in the ranking sitting at 49th (Maynooth University).
SDG 5 (Gender Equality) saw an increase in UK and Ireland ranked positions, with Trinity College Dublin leading the way at No.3 globally. SDGs 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) and 7 (Clean and Affordable Energy) were new for this year’s rankings, and the UK and Ireland had reasonable ratings here, but nothing to write home about.
SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) ranking results saw a small slip in places and SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) is very similar to last year. SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities) saw a good rise in ranking places – with a particularly interesting institution leading the charge: University of East London came in 2nd globally. A newly reporting institutions for this year, the University of East London’s overall ranking is 101 – 200, and yet it has featured in the top 3 for the UK and Ireland in SDGs 4, 5 and 10.
SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) has seen an increase in ranking positions for the UK and Ireland, now occupying slots 5, 6 and 7. Meanwhile the good run from last year in SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) dropped a few places, losing the run of slots 1, 2 and 3, instead featuring at 3, 4 and 7 this year.
SDG 13 (Climate Action) is another SDG that as a sector we are very focused on. This has not been particularly well reflected in the rankings this year, falling out of the top 10 (last year we had 3 institutions in there), down to positions 26, 32 and 34 globally.
SDGs 14 (Life below Water) and SDG 15 (Life on Land) were newly covered SDGs for the ranking this year. In SDG 14, England, Wales and Scotland did fairly poorly, with Northern Ireland and Ireland taking the highest spots for UK and Ireland. SDG 15 was another global No.1 slot – with University of Leicester doing amazingly well.
SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) saw a small rankings dip, last year featuring 3 institutions in the top 10, while this year there was 2. SDG 17 (Partnerships for the Goals) is always an important Goal for us, the SDG Accord feeds into it directly and it speaks of the type of partnership in the sector on the SDGs that we think is really important. While we didn’t retain top stop this year, we only slipped to No.2 with University of Leeds leading the way, with University of Edinburgh and King’s College London not far behind in joint 4th.

So what does this all actually MEAN? Which SDGs did we do the best at?
There are several ways to look at this. Probably the simplest is to look at which SDGs we had the most top 5 ranked institutions – and that equates to SDG 5 (Gender Equality), SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) and SDG 17 (Partnerships for the Goals). Anecdotally, these probably are the SDGs we do the best on across the UK and Ireland (as well as SDG 4).
As we said at the beginning though– there are a lot of institutions missing here. However, there are some surprises, and some institutions worthy of serious merit. Of course, those that feature highly in the rankings should be congratulated. But the standouts for us have to be those 8 institutions that climbed places this year, or came in strong, as well as those excelling in an SDG category by either coming in first or showing a commitment to an SDG that punches above their weight.
So standouts for us:
  • Newcastle University
  • Trinity College Dublin
  • University of Leicester
  • University College Dublin
  • Glasgow Caledonian University
  • University of Surrey
  • Bangor University
  • Dublin City University
  • University of Leeds
  • University of Cumbria
  • University of East London
  • RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences
EAUC facilitates the platform The SDG Accord. Find out more about it here.
Times Higher release SDG rankings image #1