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Edinburgh and Imperial excel in QS Sustainability Rankings

  • 5 December 2023
  • By Andrew MacFarlane
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Dr Andrew MacFarlane, Rankings Manager at QS.

In 2023, QS launched the pilot edition of its Sustainability Ranking. University of California Berkeley took the top spot, in a Top 10 comprised of institutions from Canada, Australia, the UK, the US, Japan and New Zealand. After gathering sector feedback, reviewing the impact of the metrics and the robustness of our data, our 2024 edition sees an evolved methodology, including a new governance category. It also sees the sample size of institutions evaluated significantly expanded, with double the number of institutions ranked vs. 2023, and 50% more institutions engaging with the data submission process.

This year sees UC Berkeley displaced from the top spot by University of Toronto. Joining the University of Edinburgh in the UK’s top 10 representation is Imperial College London. Lund University (Sweden) becomes the first EU institution in the Top 10. We must note, however, that a changed methodology, and a much larger sample size, make direct comparisons year-on-year ill-advisable.

Why is sustainable education important?

By 2030, there are estimated to be 380 million students studying at universities around the world. If the higher education sector were a country, it would be the 3rd largest country in the world.  UK institutions have a total staff and student headcount of approximately 2.3 million (HESA). Research by Universities UK estimates that Higher Education contributes approximately 130 billion to the UK economy, and supports 750,000 jobs. But with positive growth comes material impacts on both our environment and society. As Donella Meadows, a pivotal figure in systems thinking for sustainable development says, ‘All growth is not good. The environment is a necessity, not a luxury. There is such a thing as enough’ (Meadows et al., 2004).

 So, universities need to be asking themselves this question – why are we growing, and what can we do to ensure that this growth is balanced against ecological and social needs.

How should universities be thinking about this?

Sustainability transcends all missions of a university, be it their teaching, research mission, service and citizenship mission or even their entrepreneurial mission. It pervades all activities and, as such, can be difficult to define in a simple terms. Sustainability is not limited to just reducing carbon footprint, but should span a university’s wider governance practices – its research strategy, talent acquisition strategy, human resources, internationalisation strategy and pedagogy, to name a few. Writing in the Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Purcell et al. make the case for universities being the engines of transformation to a more sustainable future, the “living labs” for Sustainability (Purcell et al., 2019).

The QS Sustainability Framework

The QS Sustainability Ranking attempts to view the university in this holistic way. It is not a ranking of inputs, as much as there are a few critical input metrics such as carbon emissions and institutional policies. Rather, it tries to assess the university’s wider impact on society and environment, and whether or not this is underpinned by strong governance. It is built around three categories: Environmental Impact, Social Impact, and Governance, or more simply, ESG: weighted at 45:45:10 (%) respectively. Within each of these categories, we blend a combination of institutional data, research data, QS data, and third-party data. This helps to ensure that simply submitting data to the ranking does not guarantee strong performance, as this performance needs to be reflected across different data sets. We reference a few key metrics of the ranking next, although this is of course just a small segment of the different performance lenses overall.


This year’s ranking sees the addition of a new category on good governance. It is vital that universities have strong governance to achieve progress across the UN’s SDGs. They must have the right people in place, the right structures, and the right levels of representation.

UK institutions are performing excellently in this metric, with the highest number of institutions scoring over 90 in this category (23%), and 9 of the top 10 ranks in Governance are from the UK, with the University of York and University of Lancaster receiving the best UK scores, with a perfect 100 in this category. Not only do they have a broad set of strong governance practices internally, such as EDI policies, sustainable procurement practices, strong ethical guidelines and student representation on their council, they also demonstrate this commitment through their research, both in peer-reviewed journals and in policy impact. The University of Manchester, in this category, is highly commended by its own faculty staff for their commitment to operating ethically.    

Broadly available policy documentation, such as in EDI, ethics, procurement, and financials, is an area where we see excellent behaviours from the UK. Additionally, the standard presence of democratic students’ unions, and student representation on governance boards, and national legislation that universities must adopt (e.g. the Equality Act 2010) help the UK stand out in this area.


The QS Sustainability Framework recognizes how vital research is to sustainable futures. 35% of the ranking’s weight is related to different research metrics. QS looks at: Has an institution’s research contributed to the UN’s SDGs? Has it had any demonstrable impact on public policy? Is the institution collaborating with universities from across the globe, include knowledge sharing with the global south? Strong research is one area where growth can serve impact. When we assess the impact of research in the Environmental domains, Scandinavia performs highest on average- achieving 7 of the top 10 ranked institutions in our Environmental Research lens. The UK, however, has 21% of institutions in the +90 score range, the highest of any country for Environmental Research.

Another example of research excellence can be seen in Imperial College London. Their international collaboration stands at 65% – 10% above the UK average, and 44% above the global average. 48% of their papers are being published in top journals (double the global average), as measured by Scival’s Cite Score – further increasing the propensity for their work to be cited widely.  More than ¾ of Imperial’s research is in the Sciences, broadly, with some extremely highly cited papers on some of the most pressing medical issues of our time, including Covid-19, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s, all of which contribute to SDG 3. Having a strategic research policy, focused on the most pressing social and environmental issues we currently face, is vital – and institutions achieving this are placing high in the ranking.

Additionally, comparing Russell Group universities with other institutions, there is no inherent advantage when it comes to internal input metrics. Both are just as likely to have the right policies in place, equitable gender distributions, and record their emissions. Where the Russell Group universities take the edge is through their research, which tends to be comprehensive across discipline areas, and in their alumni – many of whom go on to hold key positions in industry and government tacking issues relating to Sustainable Development.  

Looking Ahead

Our hope for the QS Sustainability Ranking is that it acts as an impetus for change within the higher education sector. Our hope for the future, is that this ranking will earn a legacy for being a reliable and trusted data set from which prospective students can shape their decision-making and institutions can develop effective sustainable strategies.


Meadows, D., Randers, J., & Meadows, D. (2004). A synopsis: Limits to growth: The 30-year update. Estados Unidos: Chelsea Green Publishing Company381

Purcell, W. M., Henriksen, H., & Spengler, J. D. (2019). Universities as the engine of transformational sustainability toward delivering the sustainable development goals:“Living labs” for sustainability. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education20(8), 1343-1357.

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  1. Yet another meaningless ranking by a commercial company fooling university leaders into wasting money, time and executive attention when the sector has really important matters that need attending to.

    Can we all please follow Utrecht’s example and show wisdom and integrity and put our faith in science and knowledge about sustainability and not made up numbers.

    The value of a university being more than its rank is argued in todays podcast episode with two global leaders of research assessment published at

    I encourage leaders and scientists to pay attention to valid science rather than this.


  2. Michael Daw says:

    Looking at the rankings themselves, it seems that there are indeed two UK universities in the top 10 but Edinburgh is not one of them. Manchester is the top UK University.

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