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Rankings of universities and education programs pursue several goals: they provide information about the status of the academic institutions, stimulate competition, help in fundraising, give a basis for classifying different types of schools, courses and subjects. Besides, evaluation of universities contributes to measuring teaching quality in different countries. Rankings complement statistics gathered by certified organizations which provide quality assessment in the educational sphere.  


Each year specialized international agencies conduct detailed global surveys and rate universities all over the world. Very few Azerbaijani higher educational institutions are represented in such reports. So what can be done to involve more universities in the surveys and to make their participation more productive? What steps should be taken to give the national universities a better chance to attract attention of the world academic community? All these questions were addressed by We&WE to Zoya Zaytseva, Marketing Director in Central and Eastern Europe for Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) - one of the largest education rating companies working throughout the world. 

Why are the CIS academic institutions, including those in Azerbaijan, so poorly represented in international rankings?

Prestige of a university is primarily determined by the teaching quality, the demand for its graduates in the job market, and by the alumni’s achievements in their business career. And yet, there are other factors that form the image and status of the school. The very fact that the university is rated and mentioned in global listings indicates that it has certain competitive advantages. Taking part in ranking stimulates innovative scientific projects, gives an opportunity to receive international recognition and to become a member of the international academic community. But to be involved in the research, a university has to meet some standards and demonstrate a developed infrastructure, effeicient student and faculty activities, and to prove its contribution into innovative studies. Other important indicators of a university status are the index of citation in international research publications and employer reputation.

Unfortunately, academic institutions in the CIS (including Azerbaijan) are not enthusiastic at all in responding to our surveys. Professors, researchers, or employers don’t show much interest in what we are doing, maybe because they lack experience of participating in international surveys or do not consider this work important. Employers probably think that their opinion can’t influence the image of a higher school abroad. But in fact even three, five, or ten responses can play a significant role in assessing a university in accordance with the chosen characteristics.

Low activity of respondents deprives universities of a chance to be adequately placed in global rankings. So we appeal to employers, researchers and faculty staff in Azerbaijan: do take part in surveys, spare 10-20 minutes of your personal time to fill in the questionnaire. This will help the national universities to get a wider recognition abroad.

What is the scope of the surveys held by QS?

Every year we mail over 500 000 questionnaires to professors, employers and other experts all over the world. Among them there are about 2000 addressees in Azerbaijan. But we get a very low feedback – less than a hundred responses.

Why, in your opinion, is this survey ignored?

First we thought that the problem was the poor knowledge of English of the respondents, so we translated our English-language questionnaires into Russian – this language is still widely used for communication in the post-Soviet states. Yet, neither experts nor employers expressed any more zeal.

I suppose the reason is that there is no tradition of taking part in such researches. People do not take them seriously, do not understand the significance of this work. They see answering questions as a waste of time. It’s likely that they don’t believe their voices can influence the positions of the national academic institutions in the international rankings and improve the reputation of the universities. But they must realize: Azerbaijani academic community should speak for the national schools – people in other countries won’t do the job for Azerbaijanis.

What is the procedure for participants?

It is very simple. For the global ranking, we consider only classical universities. It means that they must offer courses in at least two fields out of the following five: natural science, technology, social studies, humanities, and arts. That is why specialized educational institutions have less chances to be mentioned in ranking: their specialty field is too narrow.

But if a university has programs in at least two spheres out of the five mentioned before, and offers all the three educational levels: bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD, then it can become part of the research. First, its representatives should fill in the application, explain why they want to be rated and describe the advantages of the university that can help it stand out in the global competition. The university should be compared to other institutions represented in international rankings. In other words, the ambition to be included in the global list should be supported by facts and statistics: the number of students and professors, the index of citation in academic research, and so on. Then the submitted application is studied by our analysts. If the information complies with our requirements, we launch a deeper examination of the university. At this stage, the key role is played by experts’ opinions. If the institution fails to get enough references (reports of employers and academic community account for 50% of the total score), then it won’t be listed in the final ranking.

Apart from universities, there are good higher educational institutions in Azerbaijan, that focus in a specialized area. How can they be rated and placed in international rankings?

There are a number of evaluation approaches. Global ranking is created to compare classical universities. But there are also subject rankings: to participate in them, the school does not need to have all the three educational levels (bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD programs): just two levels would do.

In 2015, QS received applications from some 20 Azerbaijan’s higher educational institutions, both state-supported and private (the form of property is not a matter of a great importance here). 14 of them went through the procedure of pre-audit, but only four were included in the Scopus database – a resource that accumulates bibliography and overviews of scientific publications (it is a tool to track and analyze articles and references published in scientific journals, books, and conference proceedings). These are Baku State University, Khazar and Qafqaz Universities, and the State University of Languages. The first three have been participating in our rankings since 2012. In 2015 Khazar University was placed in the 651-700-group, BSU and Qafqaz were included in the 700+ group.  I hope (as they say in your country, "Inshallah") that in the nearest future Azerbaijani universities would improve their positions in the international ranking.

There are many different lists: Shanghai rankings, Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS rankings offered by your company. What is the difference between them?

The systems you have mentioned feature different methods of rating universities and use different evaluation criteria.

The Shanghai (also called Academic) ranking of the world universities was developed by experts from the Institute of Higher Education of Shanghai JiaoTong University. It has been published annually since 2003. At first it was intended to identify how far the Chinese educational institutions were lagging behind the world’s leading universities. But after the first publication it was highly appreciated by experts so now it is considered to be one of the highly respected and most balanced global rankings. About 1200 universities in the world meet the standards allowing to participate in the Shanghai ranking, and every year about half of them are rated and get in the top 500 list. The best gets the highest score – 100 points. All the other universities are compared to it and get a score after calculating a percent of the maximum value.

The Times Higher Education (THE) magazine, in association with the Thomson Reuters media company, regularly issue THE World University Rankings. Their methodology is based on 13 indicators. The key ones are the academic reputation of the university, including recognition of its research papers and education quality; achievements in certain scientific fields; the citation and reference rate; the ratio of the number of published articles to the number of professors; the ratio of research funded by third-party companies to the number of professors; the proportion of international students, etc. After analyzing this data, THE presents the annual list of 400 best world universities.

As for the World University Rankings by QS, our approach is somewhat different. We evaluate academic reputation, employers’ opinions, the ratio of the quantity of teachers to the quantity of students, the share of international students and foreign professors, references to university professors in academic publications.

Azerbaijan’s higher educational institutions could be more active in this global research. I am sure they have significant academic potential, material resources, and highly-skilled professional staff to become a part of world ranking.

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