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Examining the Ivory Tower: The role universities play in poverty reduction

Universities are placing increasing importance on sustainability and driving positive change within their local communities. Find out which schools are leading progress on SDG 1 (No Poverty), according to the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings 2022.

In short

With privilege comes responsibility

Poverty is a pervasive problem that affects millions of people globally. Higher education is a well-tested pathway out of poverty, but the reality is that attaining a degree is itself a challenge.  By their very nature, universities are places of privilege. They expect students to prioritize their studies over other obligations, yet many master’s degree students work during their studies. During the pandemic, most students faced housing or food insecurity, and faculty members weren’t much better off. 

Higher education institutions increasingly recognize the role they can play in poverty reduction. They are acting not only through research, but also with direct outreach to their communities and instilling a sense of social responsibility in their students. 

As we’ll explore, universities are increasingly evaluated based on their performance on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Some institutions have initiatives contributing to poverty reduction, but no industry standards exist.

Phil Baty, Chief Knowledge Officer at Times Higher Education (THE), adds, “Actually, we’re facing a lot of backlash against universities globally – a lot of politicians saying, ‘What are they for? What are they good for? Are they too expensive? Should we invest our taxpayers’ money in other areas? Are they bastions of privilege or just elite talking shops?’ I think we do need to start to help universities reframe themselves, saying, ‘Look, we are going to change the world. We are key to the future prosperity, and even safety, of this world.’” (07:41

Measuring impact: Top universities tackling poverty

Launched in 2019, the THE Impact Rankings measures the performance of schools worldwide on all 17 SDGs. Phil tells us the SDGs “demonstrate that universities have a huge role to play. Not just in individuals’ personal success in terms of their career, they have a huge role to play in terms of the wider societal benefits and tackling the world’s biggest, and often existential challenges. So, I think these are of fundamental importance in understanding why universities are here and why they make a difference.” (07:19)

So, which schools are outperforming others when it comes to poverty reduction? According to the THE Impact Rankings 2022, the universities that score highest on SDG 1 (No Poverty) are:

  1. Western University (Canada)
  2. Queen’s University (Canada)
  3. University of Johannesburg (South Africa)
  4. University of Guelph (Canada)
  5. University of Indonesia (Indonesia)
  6. Arizona State University (Tempe) (USA)
  7. University of Montreal (Canada)
  8. University of Waterloo (Canada)
  9. Lakehead University (Canada)
  10. Universitas Gadjah Mada (Indonesia)

In ranking the THE used the following metrics:

  • Research on poverty (27%)
  • Proportion of students receiving financial aid due to poverty (27%)
  • University anti-poverty programs (23%).
  • Community anti-poverty programs (23%)

University anti-poverty programs include support for students from low-income households or countries. Community anti-poverty programs include using school resources to support local businesses in their community.

In one example, researchers from EGADE Business School found that one of the most effective poverty reduction approaches is the “social incubation model”. With this approach, students and entrepreneurs support one another to strengthen their business skills or develop a business idea.

Why Canadian universities lead in poverty reduction

THE’s Impact Rankings 2022 features schools from across the globe, including Brazil, the United Kingdom, Thailand, and Mexico. Phil shares, “There’s an extraordinary variety of data and a great diversity of universities. I think one of the things that’s very exciting about this ranking is you’ll see surprising names in there. It’s not just the usual suspects, the traditional ‘global elite.’ There’s a real mix of institutions. … It’s got a great diversity of opportunity for students.” (17:27)

In the SDG 1 rankings, however, one country clearly dominates: Canada. In total, six of the top 10 universities are based in Canada, with Western University topping the list, followed by Queen’s University. The country’s impressive standing is not surprising as the Canadian government has a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy. They plan to invest billions of Canadian dollars in improving the social and economic well-being of citizens, including students. Overall, Canada aims to cut poverty in half by 2030.

Studying in Canada continues to be attractive for international students, with its multicultural environment, international post-graduation job opportunities, and collaborative learning culture.

In sum, studying THE‘s Impact Rankings is a worthwhile exercise for students seeking an inclusive learning experience in a diverse environment – and schools are embracing it, too! 

“What we’re seeing in this ranking is a really fantastic movement of universities willing and ready to hold up to scrutiny, to stand up and be counted,” Phil says. “Hundreds of more universities are jumping on board, holding themselves to account every year. I am really inspired by the commitment that’s shown, the evidence that’s provided to show universities are taking this seriously.” (11:35)


Want to study at a graduate school that invests in making a positive social impact? Reach out directly to master’s ambassadors for their experiences.

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