Impact Rankings 2023: a demonstrable commitment to the goals

Our Impact Rankings methodology has a few updates in our largest-ever view on sustainability, explains THE’s chief data officer, Duncan Ross

June 1, 2023
Exhibition Planet Energy, animation on oil reserves around the world to illustrate A committed display
Source: Alamy

Browse the full Impact Rankings 2023 resultsTo participate in next year‘s Impact Rankings, email us

This year marks an important milestone in the Sustainable Development Goals. We are more than halfway to the 2030 deadline, and unfortunately for many of the targets and indicators we already know that hitting the goals will be hard, if not impossible. Of course, that does not mean that we should stop our efforts.

Speaking at the Global Engagement and Empowerment Forum (GEEF) conference in South Korea, Ban Ki-moon, who led the introduction of the SDGs when he was secretary general of the United Nations, was clear that our work must continue and that higher education had a critical part to play.

We are now launching the fifth edition of our Impact Rankings, with more than 1,700 participating universities from 115 different countries and regions. Each of these universities is demonstrating its commitment to the goals, and to the aim of realising a just solution to the climate crisis.

Impact Rankings 2023: results announced 

The methodology has changed a little from last year, with the following updates being introduced:

  • An emphasis on the importance of education for refugee students
  • More challenging questions on education for sustainability
  • Updated questions in SDGs 3, 4, 11 and 16, where most universities were able to answer “yes” to the previous versions
  • A new two-year average for the overall ranking score, smoothing out year-to-year volatility.

We are delighted to continue our work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) around refugee students. Although the data we collect on this is modest, we hope to extend our support for the 15by30 targets – a commitment to achieve the enrolment of 15 per cent of young refugee women and men by 2030.

The extension of our questions on education for sustainability is also key. When we think of the role of higher education in teaching about sustainability, there are two obvious aspects. First is the delivery of people with the necessary skill sets for the sustainable future – farmers to grow food sustainably (SDG 2), healthcare practitioners (SDG 3) and, of course, those with the “green skills” so often mentioned by governments. But there is also a need to ensure that everyone who graduates knows how to be a sustainable citizen in whatever role they may undertake.

As a result, after discussions with our friends at Sulitest, an organisation that provides tools to measure and improve sustainability literacy, we decided to expand the question that is part of SDG 17 to ask if universities were providing optional courses on sustainability, mandatory courses or if the issue was built into the curriculum.

On the bibliometric side, Elsevier is continuing to use the existing method for mapping research papers to each SDG. As always, Elsevier continues to work on university affiliations, which can result in some changes to publication counts but also ensures that the definition of universities is as accurate as possible.


With 1,705 universities represented, this is our biggest-ever survey on sustainability in higher education – and one that is open to all higher education institutions around the world. And it’s not only our largest evaluation, it is the world’s largest evaluation. It assesses progress across the four key areas of research, teaching, outreach and stewardship. This is important – it’s not just the strongest research universities that are the leaders in sustainability.

We also strongly believe that the input of universities across all 17 SDGs is critical if we are to make progress as a planet.

When we look at the countries with at least 10 participating universities, we can see that Canadian institutions are submitting to the most goals – with an average of 13.2 SDGs out of 17. The global average is nine SDGs per university.

As in previous years, the most popular SDG – once we exclude SDG 17, which a university must provide data for if it is to be included in the overall ranking – is SDG 4, quality education, with 1,306 universities, followed by SDG 3, good health and well-being, with 1,220 universities.

All the SDGs have seen participation grow by at least 9 per cent over last year, and by at least 83 per cent since 2020.

Participation in 2024

Data collection for the 2024 ranking will begin in September, and we will not be changing the methodology further for this data collection. We hope that this will bring some stability and support data collection efforts.

After discussions with the advisory board, we will give advance notice of changes for the 2025 ranking over this summer.

Participation remains free for all universities, and if you would like to be added to data collection for next year, please contact us on

Duncan Ross is chief data officer at Times Higher Education.

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