Universities should focus on what they’re good for, not good at

If we’re going to measure what universities do, let’s concentrate on what really counts, says Julian Skyrme

April 21, 2021
Hands holding up Planet Earth, commitment to United Nations SDGs, THE Impact Rankings 2021 blog
Source: iStock

Browse the Impact Rankings 2021 results


It’s 4pm after another long day on Teams and Zoom and I experience something increasingly rare since March 2020: a phone call. It’s from Times Higher Education. “We’re pleased to let you know that your entry in this year’s Impact Rankings came out highest in the world.”

As many will know, these relatively new rankings are based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I’ve been a cautious advocate since they were introduced in 2019, so once I checked that it wasn’t 1 April, three things sprang to mind, more or less in this order: fulfilment, bashfulness and hope.

Fulfilment came from it being exactly 10 years since my president and vice-chancellor, Dame Nancy Rothwell, set out our vision as the first UK university to make social responsibility a core university goal, equal alongside our more established commitments to research and teaching. Over this period, we’ve invested considerable time, money and institutional capital in delivering societal impact across all our functions – research, teaching, public engagement and professional services. But until THE developed this ranking, we had a nagging doubt: were we focusing on the “right” priorities? And did we know if we were any “good” at this work compared with others?


How the University of Manchester is addressing the SDGs


Bashfulness came from the fact that many of us in higher education, myself included, reserve a healthy dose of scepticism towards the burgeoning business of university rankings (a scepticism often inversely related to one’s position in a given ranking). And isn’t an “SDG ranking” something of an oxymoron given the emphasis on equity and partnership in the global goals?

Hope, though, was my enduring thought. This came from seeing how Manchester is part of a growing movement – 1,240 universities from 98 countries and regions in 2021 – of institutions who’ve voluntarily compiled detailed evidence and case studies of how we’re addressing the world’s SDGs.  

However much we sigh and eye-roll, governments, funders and media organisations are unlikely to desist from sifting and sorting universities into various positions any time soon. So, if we’re going to play this game of academic Top Trumps, let’s at least try to measure what counts.

Traditional university rankings take what I’d call an “inside out” approach: they measure what we do inside our system and expect those outside to care. Examples include metrics of peer opinion, staff-student ratios and the proportion of first-class degrees awarded. They’re incredibly important to those inside universities and largely irrelevant to everyone else. An “outside in” approach to rankings starts with values and priorities in the wider world and then assesses how universities measure up to this.

Credit to THE then for taking an outside-in approach and adopting the SDGs as a framework. The 17 goals are, after all, agreed by 193 countries around the world and offer the closest thing we have to a democratic blueprint for addressing priorities on poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.

Around the world we’re being challenged to demonstrate our relevance to the governments, students, donors and taxpayers that foot our bills. Instead of retreating into our comfortable territory of faculties, schools and institutes, a growing cohort of universities like mine – call them “engaged universities”, “socially responsible universities” or “new power universities” ­– are embracing the SDGs as a way to better engage across sectors, borders and audiences, be these in Manchester, Manaus or Manila or in the public, private or non-profit sectors. We see their use in talking about purpose: what our universities are good for, not just what we’re good at.

All rankings have flaws and drawbacks – methodological and philosophical. This outside-in approach does, though, speak more closely than others to issues that the public have told my own university are important to them and which they have reason to value.

So, if the Impact Rankings value our work in areas such as paying a living wage (SDGs 1, 8 and 10), involving local diaspora communities in our civic engagement (11), expanding education for sustainable development (4) or leading research partnerships to create a greener, fairer and healthier world (9 and 17), they can help, in some modest way, to make the work of universities more relevant to our stakeholders. A total of 1,239 other universities seem to agree and I think that’s good company to be in.

Julian Skyrme is director of social responsibility at the University of Manchester.

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Reader's comments (1)

Universities are certainly good for a lot of things, but they are not government to make policy decisions regarding anything, even if it is sustainability. They are good for providing expertise and insight, generate new knowledge and passing this down to the students, period. They are not media outlets, development agencies, thought police, mental healths clinics despite widespread expectation. The government is free to use the research they commissioned to do whatever they want. However they and pretty much everybody else is missing the big picture on how impact is reached. If impact is to be measured, that should be over a period of 50 or more years connecting all the threads leading to some impact. The best known example (far from perfect) is the funding going into the research behind the Astra-Zeneca Vaccine: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.04.08.21255103v1.full.pdf . Impact is very much unpredictable. The academic who had a major contributions (probably to original innovator) to mRNA vaccines was denied tenure because lack of grant success: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katalin_Karik%C3%B3 In fact, if a project can be funded these days, it is 5-10 years out of date and there are good reasons, government agencies should not longer be involved.

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