THE Impact Rankings 2020: results announced

Universities in New Zealand and Australia lead second edition of global ranking measuring institutions’ social and economic impact

April 22, 2020
Auckland skyline
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Browse the full Impact Rankings 2020 results

Universities in Australasia have topped the second edition of Times Higher Education’s pioneering Impact Rankings, which assess the social and economic impact of universities, using metrics based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

New Zealand’s University of Auckland once again leads the overall THE Impact Rankings, despite an additional 299 institutions joining the table this year, while Australia’s University of Sydney, Western Sydney University and La Trobe University complete the top four. Last year, no Australian universities featured in the top 10. The overall ranking includes 766 universities from 85 nations/regions.

THE Impact Rankings 2020: the top 10

Impact rank 2020 Institution Country/region Overall score
1 University of Auckland New Zealand 98.5
2 University of Sydney Australia 98.1
3 Western Sydney University Australia 97.9
4 La Trobe University Australia 96.6
5 Arizona State University (Tempe) United States 96.3
6 University of Bologna Italy 96.1
7 University of British Columbia Canada 95.9
8 University of Manchester United Kingdom 95.6
9 King’s College London United Kingdom 95.4
10 RMIT University Australia 94.9

While the 17 tables on individual SDGs are also diverse, global lists, institutions in Australasia stand out in many areas.

La Trobe tops the table on SDG 5 (gender equality), while Auckland University of Technology is number one for SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), RMIT University leads SDG 10 (reduced inequalities), UNSW Sydney tops SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) and James Cook University is number one for SDG 17 (partnerships for the goals).

As a result, New Zealand and Australia are the top country performers overall, gaining an average score of 87.6 and 87.4 out of 100 respectively in the main table.

When it comes to overall representation in the main ranking, Japan tops the list with 63 institutions, followed by Russia with 47 and Turkey with 37.

The THE Impact Rankings launched last year and are the only global rankings to document evidence of universities’ impact on society, rather than just research and teaching performance. This year’s ranking includes tables on all 17 UN SDGs, up from 11 goals last year.

View our interactive map to see performance by institution, region and national income level 

John Thwaites, chair of Monash University’s Sustainable Development Institute and of Australia’s National Sustainable Development Council, said that many universities in Oceania were “taking a lead role” in addressing the SDGs and the goals were seen “as a really important framework for their operations” and for “understanding their impact on society”.

“One of the reasons is Australian and New Zealand universities have a strong global outlook,” he said. “We have many international students but we’re also living in developed countries that are surrounded by developing neighbours. And so our success as universities and our countries’ success is very much linked to the sustainable development of our neighbours in Asia and the Pacific.”

Professor Thwaites added that there are “a lot of good interdisciplinary projects”, many of which are centred on SDG targets, among institutions in Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific and Asia. Seventeen vice-chancellors in Australia and New Zealand have signed a commitment for their universities to implement the SDGs in their research, education and operations.

“We’ve not just done this university by university but it’s been more a collaborative effort across universities and across business and civil society,” he said.

“In some ways universities have grabbed the bull by the horns themselves to take a lead on the SDGs, partly in the absence of strong government leadership.”

Professor Thwaites said that universities in other countries could learn from Australasia in terms of the importance of collaboration with other universities, particularly those in the Global South, and with other sectors.

“Joint education and research projects involving universities from different countries are one of the most effective demonstrations of the SDG agenda,” he said.

Cameron Allen, an international sustainable development expert and PhD researcher at UNSW Sydney, added that Australia has “become a regional hub for coordination of research on the SDGs”, highlighting that the Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the Pacific is based at Monash University.

Meanwhile, many institutions in the country have been “world leaders in establishing multidisciplinary thematic research or sustainable development institutes to encourage research across disciplines in addressing key challenges, including in the sustainability sciences”, he said.

“Australia also has a highly capable national science research agency (CSIRO) which has led important research into the SDGs in Australia and globally,” he added. “It’s hard to measure the impact of such initiatives but, at the very least, they have increased awareness of the SDGs among the research and academic community in Australia.”

Mr Allen added that UNSW has included the SDGs in its strategic plan and is developing a new introductory course for students on the goals.

The University of Auckland’s leading performance in the overall ranking was driven by its strong scores for life on land (SDG 15), life below water (SDG 14) and good health and well-being (SDG 3) – areas that vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater said have long been priorities because of the institution’s location and mission as a research-led university.

“Our physical proximity to the sea coast results in unique marine projects and our national commitment to sustainability and environmentalism is also reflected in our research activity and our practices. Examples include our work with local iwi, councils and communities around freshwater management, our Institute of Marine Science that provides aquaculture awareness raising activities for anyone interested in New Zealand’s marine environment and our Marine Mammal Ecology Group monitoring the health of aquatic ecosystems through the ‘Pulse of the Gulf’ project,” she said.

“On land, we own and manage a number of biodiversity reserves including native forest, wetland, and coastal ecosystems.”

La Trobe University is also a strong performer in the area of good health and well-being (SDG 3), as well as gender equality (SDG 5) and decent work and economic growth (SDG 8).

Sue Dodds, acting vice-chancellor at La Trobe, said that the university has “worked to build strong partnerships with health services, scientists, consumers and other world-leading universities”, which has meant it has been “able to achieve advances in research that improve people’s lives”.

“A good example is the work of our Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre which is advancing knowledge on the nature and causes of autism spectrum disorders. Among this centre’s many achievements that have changed families’ lives include developing early diagnostic methods to identify early signs of autism in young children, improving work opportunities for adults with autism, and research into improving the mental health of adults with autism,” she said.

Professor Dodds added that universities in New Zealand and Australia “recognise that the challenges of sustainability and addressing inequities are some of the leading issues of our time and this is reflected both in the research conducted and also in how universities are committing to being carbon neutral”. 

Western Sydney’s main strengths are in the areas of life on land (SDG 15), gender equality (SDG 5) and responsible consumption and production (SDG 12).

Barney Glover, the institution’s vice-chancellor and president, said that the Greater Western Sydney area was one of Australia’s “most economically important regions” and it was “no accident” that themes such as reducing inequality, social justice, environmental stewardship and resilience were “a key focus for the university’s own teaching, research, stewardship and engagement with local communities”.

Speaking about Australia’s performance more broadly, he added that the main financial support of the country’s universities derives from student enrolments, which allows them to “stay student-centred”, while institutions across Australasia are “the product of relatively new affluent societies”, meaning they have had to “deal with the challenges of rapid growth”.

“We have been very fortunate as universities to have the resources to critique the consequences of that growth, and, wherever possible through our research and education, shine a light on the inequities that often accompany it,” he said.

Professor Glover added that Australian universities, particularly younger ones like his own, had also “embraced the opportunity to make their mark in this ground-breaking ranking system”.

“For the first time, universities can demonstrate how they are making a difference and creating impact outside the traditional markers of teaching and research,” he said.

“More than ever, we need universities to not only be trusted sources of evidence-based information but become the institutions that can imagine the new narratives of social transformation needed in our time of crises.”

Top universities by SDG

SDG 1 – No poverty
Arizona State University (Tempe)
Research on poverty and support for students from poorer families

SDG 2 – Zero hunger
Nanjing Agricultural University
Research on hunger, teaching on food sustainability and commitment to tackling food waste and hunger on campus and locally

SDG 3 – Good health and well-being
RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences 

Research on key diseases and conditions, support for healthcare professions, and health of students and staff

SDG 4 – Quality education
Aalborg University
Contributions to early years and lifelong learning, pedagogy research and commitment to inclusive education

SDG 5 – Gender equality
La Trobe University
Research on the study of gender, policies on gender equality and commitment to recruiting and promoting women

SDG 6 – Clean water and sanitation
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Research related to water, water usage and commitment to ensuring good water management in wider community

SDG 7 – Affordable and clean energy
Tongji University
Energy research, energy use and policies, and commitment to promoting energy efficiency

SDG 8 – Decent work and economic growth
Auckland University of Technology
Economics research, employment practices and share of students taking work placements

SDG 9 – Industry, innovation and infrastructure
The University of Tokyo and University of Toronto
Research on industry and innovation, number of patents and spin-off companies and research income from industry

SDG 10 – Reduced inequalities
RMIT University
Research on social inequalities, policies on discrimination and commitment to recruiting staff and students from under-represented groups

SDG 11 – Sustainable cities and communities
Simon Fraser University
Research on sustainability, role as custodians of arts and heritage and internal approaches to sustainability

SDG 12 – Responsible consumption and production
UNSW Sydney
Research on responsible consumption and approach to the sustainable use of resources

SDG 13 – Climate action
University of British Columbia
Research on climate change, use of energy and preparations for dealing with consequences of climate change

SDG 14 – Life below water
University of British Columbia
Research on life below water and education on and support for aquatic ecosystems

SDG 15 – Life on land
University of Leicester
Research on life on land and education on and support for land ecosystems

SDG 16 – Peace, justice and strong institutions
American University
Research on law and international relations, participation as advisers for government and policies on academic freedom

SDG 17 – Partnerships for the goals
James Cook University
The broader ways in which universities support the SDGs through collaboration with other countries, promotion of best practices and publication of data


The THE Impact Rankings include metrics based on all 17 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals across three broad areas: research, outreach and stewardship.

Universities can submit data on as many of the SDGs as they are able. SDG 17 is the only compulsory SDG for inclusion in the overall table.

A university’s final score in the overall table is calculated by combining its score in SDG 17 with its top three scores out of the remaining 16 SDGs. SDG 17 accounts for 22 per cent of the overall score, while the other SDGs each carry a weighting of 26 per cent. This means that different universities are scored based on a different set of SDGs, depending on their focus.

The score from each SDG is scaled so that the highest score in each SDG in the overall calculation is 100.

Universities must submit their own institutional data to be ranked. Bibliometric data come from Elsevier.

View the full methodology.

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