Impact Rankings 2021: Portugal and South Korea are most improved

Countries have each made most progress in three tables related to the Sustainable Development Goals

April 21, 2021
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Universities in Portugal and South Korea have made the most improvement in terms of addressing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, according to our latest ranking.

An analysis of countries’ median scores across the THE Impact Rankings in 2021 compared with 2020 reveals that Portuguese universities have made more progress than any other nation in the tables relating to SDGs 3 (good health and well-being), 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) and 17 (partnerships for the goals).  

Portugal is also among the top three countries, based on average overall score in 2021, for SDGs 2 (zero hunger), 7 (affordable and clean energy) and 17.

South Korean universities have also made the most improvement of any nation in three SDGs: 4 (quality education), 5 (gender equality) and 10 (reduced inequalities). The country is top, on average, for SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure).

The analysis only included countries that had 10 or more ranked institutions in 2020 and 2021.

Carla Farinha, a researcher at the Center for Sustainability and Environmental Research at NOVA University of Lisbon, said that an analysis she carried out on public universities in Portugal between 2005 and 2018 found there was “no integrated approach” across the sector with regard to implementing sustainable development and “the universities did not demonstrate adequate top-down policy or strategy” in this area.

However, she said that Portuguese universities have increasingly been incorporating sustainable development into their strategic and activity plans and establishing sustainability offices to support this work across the different parts of their institutions.

“This results from a bottom-up strategy implemented in each higher education institution and its board’s commitment to sustainability, which has been increasing since the adoption of the UN’s 2030 Agenda as well the importance of the THE Impact Rankings,” she said.

Dr Farinha said that Portuguese universities’ improvement in this area was “more remarkable as they have been doing [this work] mostly by their own initiative”. For example, university researchers established the Portuguese Sustainable Campus Network in 2018 for university staff to share knowledge and best practice and to encourage senior leaders to commit to addressing environmental, social and economic sustainability, she said.

In contrast, Tae Yong Jung, professor of sustainable development at Yonsei University and editor of the 2018 book Sustainable Development Goals in The Republic of Korea, said that South Korean universities were far more driven by top-down policies than their counterparts in Europe.

“If the government gives a signal, then it has a very strong impact,” he said.

Professor Jung highlighted the South Korean government’s Green New Deal and Digital New Deal, which were announced as part of its pandemic-related economic recovery programme, and said that these were likely to improve sustainability on campuses in the country.

However, he said that Korean universities in general still “don’t have that much interest in the SDGs”.

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