Ruth’s Rankings 38 – Coming Attractions: The UN Sustainable Development Goals and Times Higher Education Innovation and Impact Rankings Demystified

By Ruth A. Pagell*

  • Check out the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their history
  • See if your institution is on a partner listing
  • Watch THE’s webinar and look at their slide

(11 January 2019) Times Higher Education (THE) is collecting data for a new ranking on impact and innovation that is scheduled for release in April. THE has asked universities to participate in a survey that will create rankings derived from their adaptation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Background is required on both the use of non-bibliometric measures of university performance and on the SDGs.  Several previous Ruth’s Ranking (20, 21, 29 and 36), moved beyond bibliometrics to a broader view of the university in its country and the world.  We examined the characteristics of world-class universities, introduced geopolitics, and presented data on innovation and patents.

Today’s UN goals result from work started in June 1992  at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. More than 178 countries adopted Agenda 21, a comprehensive plan of action to build a global partnership for sustainable development to improve human lives and protect the environment. In 2000, the UN issued eight Millennium Development (MDGs)  to reduce poverty by 2015. In 2015 all UN members approved new goals for 2030. The set includes17 goals,169 targets and 232 unique indicators for 2016-2030. For more information see  Division for Sustainable Development Goals (DSDG) in the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA)


For more details click here.

Below is the list of the 17 SDGs. THE’s first Impact and Innovation ranking uses 11 of them. The ranking will not use those highlighted in gray and Goal 17 highlighted in red is required for an overall rank.

  • Goal 1: No poverty -End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  • Goal 2. End hunger – Achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  • Goal 3:  Good health and well-being – Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  • Goal 4: Quality education – Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  • Goal 5: Gender Equity – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  • Goal 6. Clean water and sanitation – Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  • Goal 7:  Affordable and clean energy – Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  • Goal 8: Decent work and economic growth – Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  • Goal 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure – Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  • Goal 10: Reduce inequalities – Reduce inequality within and among countries
  • Goal 11: Sustainable cities and communities – Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  • Goal 12:  Responsible consumption and production – Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  • Goal 13: Climate action – Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts*            (* United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is the primary international, 
    intergovernmental forum for negotiating the global response to climate change)
  • Goal 14: Life below water – Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  • Goal 15: Life on land – Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  • Goal 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions – Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
  • Goal 17: Partnerships for the goals – Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.

Each of the 17 goals has a list of targets, many of which are qualitative.

These goals are not as mysterious as they may seem.  Although designed for countries, over 1,300 higher education institutions have already incorporated some form of the goals into their strategies.  For example, the Irish Research Council has created a post-doctoral fund to “attract experienced researchers from any discipline to conduct research relevant to the themes of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for shared economic prosperity, social development, and environmental protection.” Singapore Management University’s School of Social Sciences has a master’s programme in “Tri-sector collaboration.” One of the programme goals is to “increase public awareness of such widely accepted frameworks as the …..SDGs…”

The UN has a special web page for Academic Impact and an Academic Members List  (19 Nov 2018) that includes universities and institutes from all over the world. 450 are from Asia-Pacific. South Asia is well-represented with India having over 120.  East Asia has universities from China, Japan, Republic of Korea and six ASEAN representatives: Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam. See Table 1 (an Excel spreadsheet) for a list of all Asian universities.

PRME, Principles for Responsible Management Education, is a business school initiative supported by the United Nations. PRME was established in 2007 as a platform to raise the profile of sustainability in business schools around the world. It currently has 730 members with 127 from Asia-Pac/South Asia.

SDGs and THE’s Ranking

THE uses an industry income metric in its world rankings as a surrogate for technology transfer and innovation (RR 36 Part 1). A goal of this ranking is to give higher education institutions across the world an opportunity to be visible and shine in a new dimension of impact. THE designed the survey around its theory that there are three ways universities contribute to society, using the UN’s SDGs as the building block for its measurements.

• Research – creating knowledge to address the world’s problems
• Stewardship – managing resources, teaching well, the ‘good’ university
• Outreach – directly acting in society

The SDGs are designed for countries not individual institutions. While the goal headings used by the UN and THE map, the targets and measurements do not. Example 1 presents the targets for Goal 4, the education goal, for the SDGs and THE adaptation.

Participation in the survey is voluntary.  THE does not know how many universities will submit the survey but they have had many emails expressing interest in the project (THE Innovation Team, 2019). The survey requires obtaining data from different parts of the institution. For a composite ranking, universities must submit at least four SDGs and SDG 17 is mandatory. Universities can submit fewer and be eligible for a ranking just on the individual SDG.  The research data will come from Elsevier.

The survey includes data from calendar year 2017 or academic year 2016-2017, whichever the institution uses for its reporting, as long as it ends in 2017.

For more details, use THE’s webcast  with the accompanying slides


SDGs may sound like an unknown disease but as we have learned they are a series of world-wide goals for sustainable development. The existing rankings game, based on a limited number of metrics, places too much emphasis on published research and not enough emphasis on the university’s role in society. Will the new rankings add a positive dimension to evaluating universities? More valuable then the quality of the rankings is its importance in raising awareness of universities’ broader roles in their environment.

Comparisons with existing indicators that measure countries’ engagement in development and comparisons of these new rankings with standard rankings will be covered when the rankings are released in April.

THE Resources:

Bothwell, Ellie (6 September 2018). THE developing ranking based on Sustainable Development Goals accessed at

Data collection portal: THE university impact rankings (8 November 2018),  Times Higher Education;

Innovation Team (8 January 2018).  Personal email response

Ross, Duncan and Fedorciow, Laura (2 October 2018). Making an impact:  measuring universities’ contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals.


You Tube:

Ruth’s Rankings

RR 20: World Class Universities and the New Flagship University: Reaching for the Rankings or Remodeling for Relevance

RR 21:  Flagship Universities in Asia: From Bibliometrics to Econometrics and Social Indicators

RR 29:  From Bibliometrics to Geopolitics:  An Overview of Global Rankings and the Geopolitics of Higher Education edited by Ellen Hazelkorn

RR 36: Innovation, Automation, and Technology Part 1:  From Scholarly Articles to Patents;

University Guidebook on SDGs

SDSN Australia/Pacific (2017): Getting started with the SDGs in universities: A guide for universities, higher education institutions, and the academic sector. Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Edition. Sustainable Development Solutions Network – Australia/Pacific, Melbourne. Can be used by universities worldwide.

Ruth’s Rankings

A list of Ruth’s Rankings is here.

*Ruth A. Pagell is emeritus faculty librarian at Emory University.  After working at Emory she was the founding librarian of the Li Ka Shing Library at Singapore Management University and then adjunct faculty [teaching] in the Library and Information Science Program at the University of Hawaii.  She has written and spoken extensively on various aspects of librarianship, including contributing articles to ACCESS –