Australia shines again in sustainability rankings

QS has launched the second edition of its Sustainability Rankings this week, with 16 Australian universities ranked in the world’s top 100 compared to 12 last year.

This year, there are 37 Australian universities included in the ranking compared to 33 last year, with 1,403 institutions across 95 countries, compared to last year’s inaugural edition which included 700 institutions from 71 countries. 

Before I discuss how Australian universities performed, let us first focus on the methodological construct and global participation. Then I highlight where universities need to focus in order to improve.

Rankings aim

QS aims to demonstrate how universities are taking action to tackle the world’s greatest Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) challenges. QS uses a range of data sources to demonstrate how universities are using their expertise and social position to drive the different themes of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Last year’s ranking had a distinct focus on the social and environmental aspects of the Sustainability Development Goals. This year, QS added a third category (i.e., Governance), strengthening the relevance of this ranking.

Methodological construct

There are now nine lenses for which universities are assessed, with six changing in weight to allow for the inclusion of the Governance pillar. The ranking now includes 53 indicators compared to 37 last year.

The Environmental category weighs 45 per cent towards the overall score and includes three lenses: environmental education, environmental research, and environmental sustainability.  It is made up of 17 metrics, which includes measures on research impact on SDGs, institutions’ commitment to climate change and pursuing the sustainable development agenda, and alumni impact.

The Social category also weighs 45 per cent towards the overall score and includes five lenses:  employability and outcomes, equality, health & wellbeing, impact of education and knowledge exchange. It is made up of 26 metrics, which includes measures on research impact on the SDGs for equality, employment and opportunities, health and wellbeing, staff views on academic equality, women in leadership positions, and a range of other social-related measures.

The Governance category weighs 10 per cent towards the overall score and is made up of ten metrics. QS assesses whether institutions have a strong culture of governance in place, open decision making, financial transparency, student and staff representation on universities’ governing bodies.

To construct this ranking, QS makes use of data from a range of sources. For 11 metrics, information on bibliometrics is drawn from Elsevier’s Scopus, accounting for 35 per cent of the overall score across the three categories. For 12 metrics, information is drawn from QS – both academic and employer reputation surveys as well as QS’ own data – which account for 32 per cent of the overall score. For 25 metrics, accounting for 33 per cent of the overall score, QS draws data from public sources and institutions themselves.

Methodological changes

This year’s results are not strictly comparable to the first edition due to several methodological adjustments and doubling up the number of ranked institutions.

As noted earlier, there is the additional Governance category which was missing in last year. This is a positive development as this is a vital dimension by which to assess overall universities’ performance.

Since the ranking increased in the number of indicators (from 37 to 53), there were changes in the weight distribution across the various performance lenses. We observe that four performance lenses saw a decrease in weight and another two saw an increase in weight, leaving two performance lenses with unchanged weight across the first and second edition (see Table 1). Readers need to be aware of such differences when doing year on year comparisons.

Table 1: Comparison of methodology between 2023 and 2024 editions
CategoryPerformance lensWeight (2023)Weight (2024)Change in weightPerformance lensCategory
Environmental Impact (50%)Sustainable Education20.0%17.0%-3.0%Environmental EducationEnvironmental Impact (45%)
Sustainable Institutions17.5%15.0%-2.5%Environmental sustainability
Sustainable research12.5%13.0%0.5%Environmental research
Social impact (50%)Employment & opportunities10.0%11.0%1.0%Employability and outcomesSocial impact (45%)
Quality of life quality5.0%5.0%0.0%Health and wellbeing
Impact of education10.0%7.0%-3.0%Impact of education
Knowledge exchange10.0%10.0%0.0%Knowledge exchange
   10.0%10.0%GovernanceGovernance (10%)
Source: QS Sustainability Rankings, 2023 and 2024 edition. Table compiled by AJ Calderon.

Geographical spread and performance

This second edition includes institutions from 95 countries. The top five countries are the United States (210), the United Kingdom (93), China (92), India (56), and France (50). Australia is in the top 10 with 37 institutions.

Australia outperforms these top five countries in the proportion of institutions ranked in the top 100: 43 per cent of Australian universities rank in the top 100 compared to 6 per cent for the United States and 30 per cent for the United Kingdom. China, India, and France have no institutions ranked in the top 100.

Australia also outperforms these countries in the top 200 and top 300. This year, Australia is ahead of Canada in the proportion of institutions in the top 50, but Canada is ahead of Australia in the proportion of institutions in the top 100, top 200, and top 300. This highlights the extent to which universities from these two countries are actively pursuing agendas to address environmental, social, and governance issues whilst wholeheartedly adopting performance measurement (including rankings) to attest how they are having an overall impact on the broader society.

Although the United States has the highest number of ranked institutions, only 50 are ranked among the top 300 (i.e., in the range between 1 and 300). This point highlights that sustainability or addressing the UN sustainable development agenda is not seen as a core issue for universities in the United States. By comparison, of the 149 universities from Northern Europe, 37 per cent are ranked among the world’s top 300.

This is a ranking which favors English-speaking universities from high income economies. Most universities ranked in the world’s top 100, top 200, top 300, and top 400 are drawn from rich countries, dominated by universities from the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, and Canada. The reminder universities are from European and Asian mature economies.

Out of the top 100, 98 are from high income economies – Brazil and South Africa being the outliers. We also see that out of those ranked in the 101-200 band, 90 are from high economies. This means that only 12 universities are from drawn from upper-middle and lower-middle economies: China and South Africa have three each, and one each for Mexico, Malaysia, Thailand, Colombia, Brazil, and Lebanon.

Unlocking the key to success

To do well in QS Sustainability Rankings, institutions which are fully comprehensive, very high in research intensity, and are historical (i.e., 100 yers old and more) stand ahead of anyone else:

  • On the comprehensiveness of institutions: Of those ranked in the world’s top 100, 73 are fully comprehensive (i.e., have programs in all five faculty areas plus have a medical school), 20 are comprehensive (all five faculty areas), six have a distinct focus (i.e., offer programs in three or four faculty areas) and one is a specialist institution (two or fewer faculty areas).
  • On the research intensity category: 98 of ranked institutions in the top 100 are categorized by QS as having very high level of research intensity (measured in volume of Scopus scholarly outputs).
  • On the age of institutions: 64 of those ranked in the top 100 are historical institutions, 26 are mature (i.e., between 50 and 99 years old) and the remaining ten are 49 years old or under.

Invariably, institutions seeking to improve on this ranking will have to concentrate their efforts in improving their scores in the reputation surveys, particularly in the subject areas directly linked to the SDGs. University leaders and planners also need to concentrate their efforts in ensuring that their institutions’ scholarly outputs are aligned to the SDGs. The third critical area for institutional improvement is to strengthen engagement with alumni and to boost efforts for raising their alumni external profile.

Australia shines

There are 16 Australian universities which rank in the top 100, of which three rank in the top 20: Sydney is ranked 7th, followed by Melbourne at 9th, then UNSW at =11th. Six universities are ranked in the 101-200 band category (see Table 2).

Six of the Go8 institutions are ranked in the top 40, with Adelaide ranked 49th and Western Australia ranked =316th. Among the non-Go8 institutions, Griffith is the highest ranked at 40th, followed by UTS at 43rd, Macquarie at 57th, RMIT at =62nd, Wollongong at =62nd and Deakin at 66th.

In the Social category, 18 Australian universities are ranked in the world’s top 100. Sydney and ANU are ranked 1st and 2nd globally. There are also 18 Australian universities ranked in the world’s top 100 in the governance category, with Griffith, UTS and Deakin ranking 12th to 14th, respectively. However, in the Environmental category, there are fewer Australian universities ranked in the world’s top 100. Of the 12 ranked in the world’s top 100, Melbourne (ranked 9th) and Sydney (15th) are Australia’s best performers.

In the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings, Australian universities also shine. There are important variations to note due to the kind of measures used. Western Sydney and Tasmania, which rank top 5 globally in THE Impact Rankings, are ranked outside the top 100 in QS Sustainability Rankings. RMIT and UTS, which also do well in THE Impact Rankings (=7th and 14th, respectively), remain highly competitive in QS Sustainability Rankings and are ranked =62nd and 43rd, respectively.

Go8 universities and those which have a medical school have the greatest chances of shining in QS Sustainability Rankings. This is due to QS’ heavy reliance on bibliometric, reputation survey data, and other QS proprietary data, which represent 75 per cent of the overall score. This greatly benefits research intensive, fully comprehensive, and historical institutions.

Additionally, we observe that institutions which have strong alumni networks (with visibility in the global arena) are most likely to shine in QS Sustainability Rankings. Many of the stewardship, operational, and institutional policy initiatives which bear considerable weight in THE Impact Rankings have reduced influence in the overall performance in QS Sustainability Rankings.

Last year, I said it was overbearing that QS relied heavily on bibliometrics for this ranking (CMM, 26 October 2022). If we also consider the reliance on reputation survey and other QS proprietary data, then 75 per cent of the overall score is more about reputation, prestige, and research impact.

The future of this ranking

To strengthen this ranking, I urge QS to reduce the weight of the bibliometric and reputation metrics, and in turn increase the weight of measures which are more linked to the impact of the overall educational provision. I also urge QS to strengthen their efforts to better capture alumni achievement from all countries and world regions.

Last year, I also urged QS to introduce the category of Governance, which it is now incorporated. Now, I encourage QS to increase the weight of Governance to reflect the fact that higher education institutions are vital to the functioning of society and are pivotal in ensuring the vitality and ongoing sustainability of civilization. As a society, we all benefit from institutions with good governance, can showcase how accountable and inclusive are in practice.

I also remind readers that there is no such thing as perfect measurement. There is a degree of judgement that we all need to exercise when considering results from any ranking schema. The various commercial ranking schemas make use of a wide range of data which are available to them and apply a criterion which they believe best represent what they are seeking to measure. I always like to encourage readers to go beyond the numbers, methodological construct, and definitions to derive a meaning of what it means to be ranked high or low in any schema.

Table 2: Standing of Australian universities in 2024 QS Sustainability Rankings
 OverallSocial impactEnvironmental impactGovernance
Western Sydney=101=106=15021
James Cook=103=136=13527
La Trobe=166=78=312=129

Angel Calderon is Director, Strategic Insights at RMIT University and is a member of the advisory board to QS World University Rankings.



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