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[USR Summit 2022 Post-Event Highlights] Global university rankings redefining higher education excellence to promote social responsibility

(Presented by Mr Phil Baty, Chief Knowledge Officer, Times Higher Education (THE); Dr Marisol Morales, Executive Director, Carnegie Elective Classifications/ Moderated by: Prof. Lara Johannsdottir, Professor of Environment and Natural Sciences, University of Iceland)

Global university assessments and rankings are redefining excellence in higher education to promote social responsibility with a more diverse and inclusive vision, and to recognise and reward contributions beyond the traditional research production line.

The International USR Summit 2022, co-organised by the University Social Responsibility Network (USRN) and The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, was held virtually from 16 to 18 November 2022 with discussion on ways to measure and benchmark universities’ social responsibility and public purpose.

Prof. Lara Johannsdottir, Professor of Environment and Natural Sciences at University of Iceland moderated a plenary panel with discussion on “Assessing and reinforcing USR impacts”. She noted that universities worldwide are shifting their missions to focus more on social responsibilities and the public good. However, she doubted whether there were any relevant metrics to capture, reward and incentivise such social and economic impact of universities.

Mr Phil Baty, Chief Knowledge Officer of Times Higher Education (THE) based in the United Kingdom, responded, “It’s time for a disruption to the landscape of university rankings.” THE publishes one of the most widely observed university league tables, the THE World University Rankings, based on performance indicators that measure the institution’s performance across the areas of research, teaching, knowledge transfers and international outlook. Starting in 2019, THE introduced Impact Rankings to assess universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“We are seeing extraordinary societal challenges. Before the pandemic kicked in and changed the world forever, we were seeing increasing effects of climate change,” said Mr Baty. “There’s a real moment for universities to demonstrate their ability to deliver public good and make a difference to the world.”

Mr Baty commented that higher education is fundamental to the delivery of SDGs, which are multidisciplinary in nature promoting partnership and collaboration.

THE’s annual leadership survey reflected that a high proportion of university leaders agreed that the SDGs were informing how the university operated and affecting the institution’s research priorities. Another THE survey which interviewed 2,000 students also revealed that students overwhelmingly believed in their own responsibilities as sustainable citizens. They believed that universities have an important role to play in enhancing the ethic of sustainable citizenship in their students.

“Not all the universities will perform a role in society like Harvard. Universities are doing other wonderful things at the local and regional level, at the national level, or doing it outside of the research environment in terms of their teaching and new skills, and their interactions with society,” said Mr Baty.

He described the new Impact Rankings of THE as the world’s first global attempt to document evidence of university’s impact on society rather than just research and teaching. It calibrates indicators across four catalysts for change: research, stewardship, outreach and teaching. Besides an overall Impact Rankings, it also ranks universities per individual SDGs.

“It’s about demonstrating that you are making a difference to the world framed around the SDGs,” he said.

“This shines a light on previously hidden excellence. We perhaps don’t know from the very traditional monolithic rankings that there are amazing pockets of excellence in parts of the world that are often disadvantaged by traditional rankings or less well celebrated,” added Mr Baty.

Having proper assessments, even if not rankings, to reinforce social responsibility of higher education is indeed a global trend.

The Carnegie Classification, one of the leading frameworks for recognising and describing institutional diversity in higher education in the United States, is also developing new and refined versions of the classifications to better reflect the public purpose, mission, focus, and impact of higher education. In 2024, two Universal Classifications will be released: an updated version of the Basic Classification and a new Social and Economic Mobility Classification. Additionally, new Elective Classifications for Community Engagement and Leadership for Public Purpose will also be released. The classifications will soon be introduced in Australia and Canada with inclusion of indigenous populations as well.

Dr Marisol Morales, Executive Director of the Carnegie Elective Classifications, American Council on Education, joined the panel discussion and said, “The power of the Elective Classifications is the ability to offer opportunities for institution’s deep self-study to think about institutional transformation, and connect with other institutions that share the same mission or commitment to public purpose.”

She explained that different tiers of higher education institutions in the US can contribute to the world. “We’ve got community colleges, we’ve got top research institutions, all playing in the same field and learning from each other,” she said, “There’s no single version of excellence. It’s not about how rich or prestigious you are. It’s about what you’re doing to change the world.”

“I hope that it contributes to pushing against the competition model amongst institutions of higher education, and really moves towards thinking about the ways that if we connect efforts, we can improve our society locally and globally,” she added.

Mr Baty agreed that it’s time to move towards a more collaborative higher education sector. As SDG 17 is about “partnerships for the goals”, the new THE Impact Rankings should be taken as the beginning of a collaborative process.

International USR Summit 2022 Plenary Panel: Assessing and Reinforcing USR Impacts
by Mr Phil Baty, Chief Knowledge Officer, Times Higher Education (THE); Dr Marisol Morales, Executive Director, Carnegie Elective Classifications; and moderated by Prof. Lara Johannsdottir, Professor of Environment and Natural Sciences, University of Iceland

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