I don’t think it has ever been as important as it is today to champion the great impact that universities have on society.
Universities have a profoundly positive effect on the world: through their educational programmes; through their work in the community; through their inventions and innovations; and through their ground-breaking discoveries.
Universities power regional and national economies. They are the key to solving some of the world’s existential challenges, such as food security and climate change. They help us to understand what it is to be human. They make the world a better place.
And yet often it seems that universities – in many parts of the world – are under attack.
Across the continents, populist politicians are questioning the very worth of higher education institutions. Some cast doubt on whether it is affordable – even desirable – to provide a mass higher education system amid the myriad competing priorities for public investment. Others claim that too many degree courses fail to deliver value – be it for the individual or the taxpayer.
Governments are cutting research funding, while politicians disparage particular research projects (even entire academic disciplines) in a highly charged research funding environment. Why fund seemingly esoteric work in the humanities, for example, if the ordinary taxpayer cannot see an immediate benefit? Who needs philosophy or Classics in a modern world, it is asked. Why fund climate research if you don’t believe in climate change? These are dangerous times.
Some prominent members of our political class positively revel in a “post-truth” world where scholars and experts are dismissed and where instinct and prejudice are encouraged to trump facts and evidence.
Even in those nations where universities remain highly valued – where they are seen as vital drivers of economic growth and prosperity and are nurtured and supported – there is a real desire to understand exactly what they deliver for society, to help to prioritise and target support where it can create maximum impact. Where investment increases, so too do questions about the full extent of the impact universities have on national wealth, social and cultural health and international understanding.
That’s why we at Times Higher Education are so proud to have pioneered new rankings based entirely on the impact that universities have on society, through the framework of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals rather than through more traditional and straightforward metrics such as research and prestige.
These University Impact Rankings give deserved recognition to the countless universities that, while perhaps lacking the wealth and prestige to claim a spot in the traditional global league tables, do vital yet often unsung work to make the world a better place in so many different ways. And it is heartening to see so many countries represented, evidence that the spirit to contribute and the determination to create positive change is to be found in all corners of the world.
The rankings will also help universities to improve their impact on the world, by highlighting for the first time good performance and providing benchmarks and a highly visible new platform to foster collaboration.
They will also create a wholly new evidence base and build a vast unique reservoir of rich, internationally comparable data, to help universities to build a case, corral the evidence and prove to politicians and the wider public the huge value that they bring to the world.
Phil Baty is chief knowledge officer at Times Higher Education.
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