Duncan Ross, Chief Data Officer, THE (Times Higher Education)

Meet Duncan Ross, a seasoned data miner with a career spanning over two decades. He currently leads THE‘s Data and Analytics division, orchestrating university rankings and data-driven products. Before this role, he steered Teradata’s data science team across Europe and Asia, pioneering analytical solutions across diverse industries, from manufacturing to telecommunications. Beyond the corporate arena, Duncan co-founded DataKind UK, a nonprofit empowering charities with data-driven insights. He’s a recognized influencer in data, acknowledged by DataIQ and a contributor to UN HESI rankings discussions.

In a recent interview with Higher Education Digest, Duncan explores “Higher Education’s Role in Advancing the SDGs in the G20.” This report, unveiled at the G20 Universities Impact Summit in India, draws on data from THE’s Impact Rankings, assessing universities’ SDG contributions across teaching, research, outreach, and resource stewardship.

Could you please provide a brief overview of your background and experience in the field of data mining and its intersection with higher education?

I started working in a company specializing in neural networks in the early 1990s. I then joined Teradata, where I worked as Director of Advanced Analytics. I was then Data Director for Experian before being recruited back to Teradata to head their Data Science practice.

In 2015, I joined Times Higher Education (then part of TES Global) as Chief Data Officer to help them develop their data strategy, including their rankings.

Alongside my direct work in data science, I have also spent time working with the third (non-profit) sector. I was an elected city councilor in Birmingham, UK, from 1996-2000. I was Chair of Trustees of Family Service Units, a children’s charity. I sat on the UK Government’s Open Data Users Group. In 2013, I co-founded DataKind UK, a charity dedicated to supporting other not-for-profit organizations in their use of data.  I am currently part of the United Nations Higher Education Sustainability Initiative, where I co-chair the Rankings, Ratings and Assessments group.

On a global level, there is very little consistent data on our universities despite their importance to society. My experience in data science has enabled me to develop analysis and insights that can support the sector, including through the development of the Impact Rankings.

In 2022, I was listed as one of the top 100 people in Data by Data IQ.

A new report by Times Higher Education highlights the underutilization of higher education institutions in advancing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Could you elaborate on how you see universities playing a more impactful role in this context?

Universities can be key supporters in the delivery of the SDGs. They are frequently economic hubs in their communities, with access to resources that can be used to lead on the Goals. In particular, we see four key ways that universities can directly contribute: research into solutions needed by the Goals, stewardship of resources, outreach and leadership in their communities, and teaching sustainability.

The report emphasizes the potential of universities to contribute across all 17 SDGs. Could you share a few examples of how universities can extend their influence beyond SDG 4 (quality education) to address other goals?

A great example is the work done by Amrita University in India in their Live-in-Labs program (https://www.amrita.edu/international/live-in-labs/). This puts real-world education and research into the heart of some of the poorest communities in India, working with people to develop solutions around health (SDG 3: Good Health and Wellbeing), water (SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation), gender equality (SDG 5) and, of course addressing some of the underlying issues of poverty (SDG 1).

The report draws on the Impact Rankings to assess universities’ contributions to the SDGs. Could you explain how these rankings were developed and how they quantify universities’ impacts on the goals?

The rankings were originally developed in 2019. For each of the targets within the goals, we have identified actions that universities can take to support their delivery. We create a ranking for each of the 17 SDGs individually, as well as an overall ranking.

As well as giving a broad impression of the activities taken by the participating universities, the ranking also allows universities to understand the detailed data and measurements made. This enables benchmarking and understanding.

The rankings have proven to be a huge success, rising from 541 participating institutions in 2019 to 1705 in 2023 (participation is voluntary). This makes it far larger than other sustainability-focused rankings and provides a strong base for understanding the sector as a whole.

The rankings also provide a more equitable assessment of institutional performance than other measurements, with universities from across the world – including the global south – performing strongly.

How do you envision these rankings influencing universities’ efforts to address the SDGs?

The rankings give a mechanism for universities to measure their progress against an external set of metrics that are aligned with the goals – and the ability to benchmark their activities against their peers. This can help universities to focus their efforts and to make improvements where possible.

One of the positive indicators of progress in the report has been the willingness of institutions to measure themselves and to take action on sustainability.  We hope that universities can extend partnerships to link universities with different perspectives on the same core issues – especially building relationships between universities in wealthier and poorer nations (one of the targets of SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals).

The report mentions specific SDGs where academic output remains relatively low in G20 nations. Could you elaborate on the challenges universities and governments face in conducting research for these particular goals, especially in nations with limited financial resources?

Research outputs are not evenly spread across all of the SDGs. For example, the volume of output for SDG 1: No Poverty is far lower than for other SDGs. Unfortunately, the impact of climate change will not be evenly distributed. Nations with limited financial resources are likely to suffer more directly and more rapidly. At the same time, they are likely to have greater insight into the challenges and into the potential solutions. Funding research that is going to make a difference is likely to require a range of funders to be more open to addressing the imbalances (both government and private funders) and is also going to require universities to be willing to create effective and relevant partnerships.

Universities are recognized as potential leaders in fostering partnerships to achieve SDG 17 (partnership for the goals). How can universities effectively navigate across sectors and international boundaries to maximize their collaborative efforts?

Universities (and individual academics) have always worked across international boundaries in pursuit of knowledge. Climate change does not respect borders, and the solutions to climate change need to reflect this. There are already academic bodies that operate internationally on climate action, including dedicated organizations such as EAUC (Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges) and broader alliances such as the International Association of Universities. These organizations need to be further supported, and their work needs to be recognized by governments.

Strengthening communication and collaboration between governments and higher education institutions is highlighted in the report. Could you share specific strategies or examples of successful government-university collaborations that have contributed to addressing the SDGs?

Partnerships are key to expanding understanding and effectiveness of action – one example is the University of Manchester’s African Cities Research Consortium, bringing together city leaders, the UK government and universities to focus on the complex problems of cities in Africa. The University of Manchester was ranked 2nd in the Impact Rankings in 2023.

Looking ahead, how do you see the relationship between higher education institutions and the SDGs evolving in the next decade?

We hope that universities will continue to work on the delivery of the Goals over the next six and a half years (the Goals will end in 2030) and can help to shape the replacement Goals as the UN works on those.

What key actions or strategies do you recommend for G20 governments and universities to maximize their collective impact on the SDGs as the 2030 deadline approaches?

Effective partnerships are critical. Our report highlighted three key areas: targeting research (and research investment) across all of the SDGs more effectively, matching the needs of communities with expert knowledge across international boundaries, and ensuring that governments take advantage of the universities’ expertise.


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