QS World University Rankings: Sustainability methodology - How to use the rankings in your university search | Top Universities

QS World University Rankings: Sustainability methodology - How to use the rankings in your university search

By Laura Lightfinch

Updated August 3, 2023 Updated August 3, 2023

The new QS World University Rankings: Sustainability 2023 assess 700 universities around the world to determine their environmental and social impact.  

Institutional impact is evaluated across eight categories (or indicators) to effectively capture university performance when it comes to making positive change for people and planet.  

The rankings can provide a helpful starting point to understanding how environmentally and socially conscious a university is. You can use the rankings to see how your shortlisted universities perform, or if you’re keen to choose a degree from a high-ranking sustainable university, you can start your university search here too.  

How to use the rankings in my university search 

The QS Sustainability Rankings 2023 ranks each of the 700 institutions overall, but you can also filter by indicator.  

Indicators are split into environmental sustainability measures – including sustainable institutions, sustainable education and sustainable research – and social impact measures – including equality, knowledge exchange, educational impact, employability and opportunities, and quality of life. We’ll get into what these each mean below.  

The rankings can give you an idea of the responsibility universities are taking when it comes to sustainability, but they can’t make the choice for you. We recommend that your next step is to look at the plans, actions and initiatives on university websites to get a feel for what’s important to you.  

While not all universities around the world submitted data to be included in the rankings, institutions with a strong, clear commitment to sustainable and social impact have been picked up and included regardless of their participation.  

What do the indicators mean? 

The eight indicators that determine the QS Sustainability Rankings are split into two sections that consider the relevant and important aspects that students care about.  

Environmental impact 

The environmental impact rankings reflect the outward impact a university is making when it comes to building a sustainable institution, engaging in relevant and impactful research and embedding sustainability in the curriculum.  

The sustainable institutions indicator considers whether a university holds membership in officially-recognised climate action or sustainability groups, has a publicly available sustainability strategy and energy emissions report, has student societies focused on environmental sustainability, and a published commitment to becoming NetZero.  

The sustainable education indicator looks at alumni outcomes and academic reputation within earth, marine and environmental sciences courses, and the availability of courses that embed climate science and/or sustainability within the curriculum. If a university has a research centre dedicated to environmental sustainability, further points are gained.   

The sustainable research indicator assesses the university’s research activity around the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and whether the government is funding research and development in this area.  

Social impact 

How seriously do institutions take their role in creating a more equal, fair and just world? As well as environmental impact, the QS Sustainability Rankings also considers university impact around today’s biggest social issues.  

The equality indicator assesses institutions on a variety of measures including the proportion of female students and faculty, the availability of public equality, diversity and inclusion policy, and the disability support available.   

The knowledge exchange indicator measures universities on their commitment to knowledge transfer in collaboration with less-economically-supported institutions, and a university’s inclination to partner with other institutions and organisations.  

Impact of education looks at the university’s research into quality education, alumni impact and academic reputation in relevant social subjects, and how free students and academics are in pursuing their research without censorship.   

The employability and opportunities indicator gives each university an employer reputation score and an employment outcomes score, based on how prepared students are for successful careers. Universities are also assessed on research into work and economic growth, and peace, justice and strong institutions, as well as the rate of unemployment within the country they’re based in.  

Quality of life is the final social impact indicator, used to understand an institution’s commitment to wellbeing within and outside of the university. We also look at research activity into quality of life, health options on campus and air quality in the region, for example. 

Find out more information about how each category is assessed. 

How to filter the rankings 

You can easily filter the QS Sustainability Rankings by region and indicator. For example, if you want to discover universities in the United States with a strong equality score, you can use the drop-down menu to choose the region and/or location.  

Once you’ve filtered the list into US universities, you can click the ‘Rankings indicator’ tab and scroll through the indicators at the top of the rankings table to find the one you want. Click ‘equality’ and the table will be automatically filtered from highest to lowest based on that indicator.  

What do I do next?  

Once you’ve used the rankings to understand how environmentally and socially impactful your shortlisted universities are, we recommend exploring their profile pages on TopUniversities.com and their own websites to find the specific policies and initiatives of each university.  

The QS Sustainability Rankings are helpful as a starting point, but it’s important to visit university websites, attend open days, watch videos and chat to students about their experiences.  

Once you’ve done as much research as you can and understand what you want to achieve from your university experience, then you (and only you) can make the right decision for your future.  

Good luck! 

This article was originally published in October 2022 . It was last updated in August 2023

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