Celebrating our positive impact 

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The University has ranked among the world’s top institutions for its social, environmental and economic impact.

Times Higher Education has announced the results of its Impact Rankings, a league table of 1,406 universities assessed against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Edinburgh is among the top two per cent in the table, ranking 29th with an overall score of 93.9 out of 100 – its best result to date.

The score makes the University the fourth highest ranking Russell Group institution, and the sixth best in the UK.

Milestone year

The University’s top performing category is Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure, with a score of 99.8 out of 100 putting it in fifth place out of 785 institutions.

The result comes as students and recent graduates launched 100 startup companies in a single year for the first time in 2021/22.

Lorna Baird, Student Enterprise Manager at Edinburgh Innovations shares what it was like to reach this huge milestone: “The University of Edinburgh has an impressive record on student and staff enterprise but reaching 100 student startups, top of the Russell Group, in a year of lockdown was beyond our wildest dreams!

“At Edinburgh Innovations we have put a significant amount of work into creating a dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem, organising supportive events and activities to encourage our young entrepreneurs and ensuring all staff and students can access information about the enterprise journey.

“All the credit belongs to this inspiring cohort of young people, many of whom are focused on tackling important societal challenges.

“We’re so thrilled and proud of all our company founders and we’re here to support them as they begin, what we hope, will be a long and fruitful journey.

“At the University, we are committed to making the world a better place in all that we do. Aiming to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals is utterly consistent with this commitment and demonstrates our positive contribution to our global future.”

Collin Powers, founder of startup company Ellyra, demonstrating his virtual reality tennis training software.

Of the 100 start-ups, 43 were founded by women, and 21 of the businesses define themselves as social enterprises, meaning they exist to benefit society.

Net zero goals

Partnership for the Goals, and Responsible Consumption and Production, were also high scoring categories for the University, with rankings of ninth and 32nd respectively.

The rankings consider the University’s strategy to become a net zero waste organisation by 2030 by putting circular economy thinking, waste prevention and recycling at the forefront of its relationship with resources and management of our estates.

The IT Reuse project is one such initiative. It looks to support staff across the University to fix or find a new home for PCs and other electronics. Reusing the equipment in this way saves money, carbon and waste, and the IT Reuse team have also been able to donate old machines to local communities.

Bradley Richards is an IT Reuse Technician in the Social Responsibility and Sustainability team. He has been running the project for several years.

Bradley manages the IT Reuse project.

“I feel that being able to give something back to the community is very rewarding. With the large number of devices being circulated through the University, it only makes sense to reuse or repurpose these devices. I have always felt that if you are in a position to help, then you should, especially if it will positively impact the lives of those less fortunate.

“Donating our older systems to local charities and enterprise partners has brought a sense of achievement for myself and a sense of purpose for the IT Reuse project moving forward. People have used the computers to learn from home or access the internet and stay in touch with others. This became very important during the pandemic.

“Given the large number of staff and students here at the University we can make a real impact on digital inequality all around the UK, not only in Edinburgh.”

Bradley is keen to stress that the more people who take part, the more people they can help: “Anyone can get involved by seeing if they have any working old IT equipment that has been sitting around in a drawer or a cupboard for some time and has not been used.”

Sustainable teaching

The result also reflects the University’s inclusion of climate and sustainability topics into its degrees, elective modules and extra-curricular activities, as well as its range of short online courses on climate and sustainability.

The new Climate Solutions Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is one example. Created to launch the same year as COP26, Professor Dave Reay, Chair in Carbon Management and Education in the School of GeoSciences, led on creating the course. He shares more about why it was important that it take this format: “We wanted to take the learning around what climate change is, why it’s important to everyone, and what you can do about it, and make that accessible to everyone.

For Dave, education is key to halting and reversing the current climate emergency: “If we think about the Paris Climate Goals, they can’t happen if people don’t have the learning and the skills to reduce emissions in every sector and every country, to adapt to climate change, to be able to have that informed view about what’s going on and what we can do about it.”

The SDGs are a key part of Dave’s work, but he’s keen to stress it’s something that everyone should be thinking about, especially in a university environment: “If we go back to the fundamentals about what we’re about as University and what education it is about, then it’s about preparing our graduates for the world we are all living in and going to live in. It’s making sure that they’re employable and that they can follow the career paths they want to follow.

“The reality is all our lives, throughout this century are going to be shaped by climate change. Either the action or the inaction we’re taking, so there’s a responsibility for us, whatever discipline you study at Edinburgh, to have some awareness of climate change because it’s going to shape your life, both personally and professionally.

“Our greatest positive impact is through our students and our graduates around the world. Helping to magnify that impact, for me, is one of the most exciting parts of the job.”

The course has had more than 5,000 students from more than 100 nations, and the team is constantly adapting the course for other countries and languages.

Positive progress

Professor Reay is keen to stress the importance of the UN’s goals: “Sometimes the SDG’s can seem overwhelming, but actually it’s just a matrix of interlinked opportunities and challenges. The SDG’s are a fantastic framework for allowing all of us to explore how they fit together, how they are relevant to us and how we take action through that knowledge

“During my career working on climate change, yes we’ve missed some opportunities, absolutely, and that’s regrettable, but we have already avoided some of the scenarios which would have had huge negative global impacts.

“Yes, there’s still a lot of risk that we’re facing, but we can limit that damage hugely by improved awareness and education. We as a University have got this huge privilege and opportunity to help not just our local communities and countries but internationally to encourage action on climate and succeed on the SDGs.”

You can find out more about the University’s sustainability commitments on the Social Responsibility and Sustainability website.

Photography: Sam Sills; Pheelings Media/GettyImages