The big reveal of the THE Impact Rankings for 2021 has just passed, and we’ve seen some interesting – and in some cases substantial – changes this year.

In a year turned upside-down by the effects of a global pandemic that is widely considered to be the biggest disruption since the last World War, universities nevertheless came out in force to mark the biggest-yet Impact Rankings. With that in mind, we’ve compiled 11 of our top insights from this year’s cycle:

1. Participation Continues To Grow Rapidly

A record 1,240 universities took part in this year’s Impact Rankings; a 30% jump from last year. Entering the 3rd year of the rankings, it is definitely gaining momentum and recognition globally.

2. Universities from Emerging Economies are Gaining Recognition

We are continuing to see universities from emerging economies taking prominence in the the rankings. 19 of Overall Top 100 Impact Rankings are from emerging economies. Indonesian and Malaysian universities continue to deliver success in working towards the 2030 global SDGs target. There are also universities from Egypt, Lebanon and Thailand represented for the first time in the Top 100.

3. Asian and European Universities are Engaging More

This year, there is a significant increase in participation from Asian and European universities. 7 of these universities are also now ranked in the Overall Top 100 for the first time.

4. Universities Do Well in SDG 9 – Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

The sector performs best in SDG 9 – Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure. The average scoring of the Top 100 is 93.22, with 4 of the universities scoring 100.00. This demonstrates the sector’s excellence around innovation, knowledge mobilization and engagement with industry.

5. Universities Must Do More around Climate Action

SDG 13 – Climate Action – is the goal that the sector needs to work hard on. Overall, the sector performed worse in SDG 13 compared to others. It is time to call for action! Universities need to have clear commitment to carbon neutrality and low-carbon energy use on campus.

6. European Universities Focus on Social and Economic Development

European universities are more likely to submit data on SDGs related to social and economic development (SDG 8, 9 and 11), and less likely to submit data on SDGs related to basic human needs. This aligns with the performance of European countries against the SDGs as few people face extreme poverty and undernourishment and in general there is widespread access to key services (including health and education) and infrastructure.

7. Arabic Universities Focus More on Basic Human Needs

Arabic universities are more likely to submit data on SDGs related to basic human needs (SDG 1, 2 and 3) and universal values (SDG 4 & 5), and least likely to submit data on SDGs related to social and economic development, and governance. This reflects the priorities of Arabic universities – providing access to education to enable upward social mobility, improve quality of life for their students and communities, and providing women and girls with equal access to education.

8. Elsevier and Partners Improved the SDG Mapping through Query Improvements and Machine Learning

For THE Impact Rankings 2021, Elsevier partnered with the Aurora Universities Alliance (represented by Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), the University of Auckland and the University of Southern Denmark to improve the document to SDG mapping using query improvements. The new partnership improves queries and machine learning models. The use of machine learning helps queries in increasing recall, finding more SDG-related papers. For more information, see Elsevier’s SDG Research Mapping Initiative.

9. THE Has Been Working with the UN Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI)

In the last year, the THE has been working with the United Nations’ Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI) on the expectations for rankings and assessments of the sector’s sustainability efforts. There is a need for a clear guidance for the sector and stakeholders on measuring universities’ sustainability efforts.

10. THE is Introducing an Advisory Board for the Impact Rankings

Times Higher Education is setting up a new Advisory Board for THE Impact Rankings as part of its efforts towards openness and transparency. The inaugural members of the Advisory Board include representatives from the University of Surrey, UK, the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and AASHE, US.

11. Students Choose Sustainability over Location

Most recent research by the THE shows students are more likely to choose a university based on its commitment to sustainability than for its locations. 82% of the surveyed students believe that the sector has a role to play in enhancing the ethic of sustainable citizenship in their students through the teaching and learning of sustainability; and 79% believe that the sector is an important stakeholder in achieving the global UN SDGs target.

A big congratulations to all who participated and we will look forward to next year’s rankings!

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