Are universities and students aligned on sustainability priorities?

THE data suggests that climate action is seen as a higher priority among prospective international students than universities

July 5, 2021
A climate demonstration
Source: iStock

Browse the full Impact Rankings 2021 results

The rapid expansion of the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings over the past two years proves how important sustainable development has become for higher education institutions. But a comparison of the submissions to the 2021 rankings and prospective international students’ views on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) suggests that university leaders and students are not completely aligned in terms of their sustainability priorities.

THE data suggest that SDG 4 (quality education) is the most important goal for both groups; this goal received more data submissions from universities than any other SDG (966), while prospective international students were also most likely to say that SDG 4 was the highest priority of all the goals (it was among the top three goals for 37 per cent of the 2,000 students surveyed).

However, the two groups then diverge; SDG 3 (good health and well-being) is the second priority for universities, with 871 institutions submitting data in that area, but it is only the sixth priority for prospective students overall (although it is second for students from Africa). The data suggest that the importance of health to institutions is long-running and not an effect of the pandemic; it was also second for submissions in 2020 and 2019 (although the latter rankings only included tables on 11 of the SDGs).

Graphic of universities’ submissions and students’ priorities compared, SDGs

Meanwhile, SDG 13 (climate action) was the second priority for prospective international students overall, appearing among the top three goals for 33 per cent of those surveyed, and the top priority for those from North America, Europe and Oceania, but it had only the 10th highest number of university submissions. SDG 2 (zero hunger) is another goal that is seen as a higher priority for students than universities.

The analysis excluded SDG 17 (partnerships for the goals) because universities need to submit data in this area to be included in the overall ranking. The survey of prospective international students was conducted in March by THE’s consultancy team.

Sam Whittaker, a higher education consultant at THE Consultancy, said that universities’ submissions to the Impact Rankings “do not necessarily perfectly reflect institutional priorities regarding sustainability”, adding that there were “numerous reasons why universities may choose not to submit to the rankings for certain SDGs, including that their evidence doesn’t necessarily easily align to the Impact Rankings framework”.

However, he said that the findings “hint towards the fact that students may expect their universities to be doing more to combat climate change”.

“The sheer strength of feeling among the international student community about the importance of climate action may serve as a call to action for universities to redouble their efforts in tackling sustainable development relating to SDG 13 and in combatting the climate disaster,” he said.

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