Surveys, rankings and lists . . . What do they mean?

The recent Maclean's magazine rankings of Canadian universities and other surveys in which the University of Lethbridge has been profiled raise an interesting question: What role do surveys and/or rankings actually play in molding public opinion towards the University?
The challenge for senior administrators like Dr. Andy Hakin, the U of L's vice-president (academic) and provost, is balancing the assorted surveys, rankings and affiliated data in a way that makes sense — and tying the information into the University's strategic and business plans.
"As part of our strategic planning process, we are clearly stating who we are, what we are doing now, and where we are going in the future," Hakin says. "The bottom line is that we work for the public good, and therefore we can never be shy about sharing what we know about our university with the public.
As a growing, comprehensive university, we have been surveying ourselves and collecting information from these and other surveys to make information readily available to the public."
"We are constantly under our own microscope and those of others, but the overall results are the same, no matter who looks in on us. Our student satisfaction rates are consistently in excess of 90 per cent; our professors receive top marks from students for their level of accessibility and, in a recent Globe and Mail survey — which was totally driven by external student opinions — we received numerous A grades for a number of similar attributes."
Hakin says that the U of L also participates in the Canadian University Survey Consortium (CUSC), the National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE), and reports annually to the government of Alberta with Key Performance Indicator (KPI) data.
"The CUSC data is collected by a group that includes numerous Canadian universities, while the institutions participating within the NSSE surveys include universities in the USA and Canada. Whether the survey results come from CUSC, NSSE, or from Alberta's KPIs, I am pleased to report that their findings for the U of L have been consistently first-rate."
Hakin says that the National Survey on Student Engagement survey ranks the University highly in two particular areas: Active and Collaborative Learning, and Student-Faculty Interaction.
"The categories measure how much access a student has to a professor, whether they have the opportunity to speak and work with the professor on additional projects, and how effective the professors are at responding to students, as well as how many opportunities the students have to conduct community service activities and engage in volunteer work as part of their course."
Hakin adds that Maclean's magazine uses readily-available data, including CUSC data, information from the Canadian Association of University Business Officers (CAUBO) and other material which the University has already placed on a publicly-available website at
The data from the U of L's own surveys indicate that rankings like Maclean's account for a small percentage of the student decision to attend the U of L, Hakin says.
"A ranking such as Maclean's might help students realize that, nationally,
we are consistently ranked among the top 10 institutions in our category. Further, we are always appreciative of any opportunity that assists with spreading the word across Canada that the U of L is a high-quality university, and that we provide students with programs and opportunities from outstanding faculty members."
However, Hakin says he prefers to have students discover the University
of Lethbridge in a way that meets their needs.
"We expect that the students who choose the U of L will decide to attend not just by reading a ranking sheet, but through referrals from already satisfied students, or by talking to us directly."