These world-changing universities are making the most impact on society

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Phil Baty, Chief Knowledge Officer, Times Higher Education

  • Higher education institutions are facing a reckoning over their delivery of social and economic impact to their communities and to society.
  • The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings show the most impactful universities from around the world from leading on providing decent work and economic growth to contributing to delivering affordable, clean energy.
  • A record 1,524 institutions from 110 countries and regions participated across the rankings on 2022 representing a 23% increase on the previous year.

A great “reckoning” is coming to universities around the world.

Such was the contention of Harvard professor Fernando Reimers, a leading member of the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s Commission on the Futures of Education, this year. In an interview with Times Higher Education, he said: “In recent decades… the public and politicians are increasingly asking, ‘What good do universities do for society? Who do universities serve?’

“I think that is causing a reckoningwithin the higher education community perhaps of comparable significance to the reckoning that led to the last major transformation of the university after the Second World War” – an era of great expansion of university education and widening access.

The Commission called for “a new social contract for education.”

But a massive new data analysis released today – covering more than 1,500 universities from 110 countries – clearly demonstrates that global higher education is ready to face this reckoning.

Delivering sustainable change

The 2022 edition of the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, based on universities’ contributions to delivering the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), show that universities worldwide are seizing the moment to double down on a long tradition of public service of delivering sustainable social and economic impact for their communities and society at large.

Based on a series of more than 100 metrics and over 200 measurements, covering universities’ teaching, research, outreach into the community and the stewardship of their own resources, the rankings show universities from all over the world delivering real impact across all 17 SDGs – whether that’s Western University in Canada leading efforts to help eradicate poverty (SDG 1) or the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa leading on work to provide decent work and economic growth (SDG 8) or Fudan University in China heading up the table of universities’ contribution to delivering affordable, clean energy (SDG 7).

Overall, 17 different universities from 14 countries top one of the 17 individual rankings for each SDG – a diverse global community ready to hold itself accountable for the delivery of the global goals, sharing data and benchmarking progress.

A record 1,524 institutions from 110 countries and regions have participated across the rankings this year, a 23% increase since last year, reflecting the growing importance of the SDGs within higher education institutions globally.

THE Impact rankings include tables for each individual SDG, as well as an overall ranking – drawn from universities’ performance in their best three individual SDG categories, combined with their performance in the compulsory category of SDG 17 – Partnerships for the Goals.

Australia’s Western Sydney University claims the top spot in the overall ranking, which includes 1,406 institutions, after topping the table for SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation) and coming second in SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production).

Collaboration is key

Hailing his university’s success in the rankings, Western Sydney University vice chancellor Barney Glover called for universities worldwide to join forces to tackle the SDGs.

“If we are arrogant enough to believe that we can make a difference to the complex problems we’re facing without collaborating, without bringing the best together to think through, to analyze, to synthesize and to strategize, then I think we are going to let down generations to come,” he said.

And the rankings could certainly encourage more diverse, international university collaborations, as the top ten include eight different countries from across four continents, with only one representative from the United States, Arizona State University, in second place. Last year’s world number one, Manchester University, takes ninth place in an annual list that is inherently dynamic: the rankings are growing each year rapidly as many more universities seek to demonstrate their commitment to delivering the SDGs by joining the database; and they allow institutions to demonstrate rapid improvement year-on-year, by introducing clear new policies, for example, or by providing clearer and more open evidence of their progress.

Speaking at the ed-tech-focussed ASU+GSV Summit in San Diego in early April, Joy Johnson, president of Canada’s Simon Fraser University, said that taking part in the Impact rankings had allowed the university to “hold a mirror up to ourselves”.

“We’ve learned some interesting things… we have learned what we are doing really well, and we have surprised ourselves… More importantly, we’ve learned where the gaps are and where we need to continue to push ourselves.”


  1. It’s interesting to see which colleges are not only providing high-quality education but making a difference, such as in the way of increased sustainability. Great insight shared here.

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