How will you co-create with students?

At the beginning of 2020, Tricia Seifert, curator of the Supporting Student Success blog, asked: What are you doing in your practice that is interesting, innovative, or ground-breaking? How have you partnered with students? What have you done that missed the mark and you used the set-back to learn and move forward? David Ip Yam, from York University, shares his experience below.


What’s your institution’s innovation strategy and where do you fit? How and with whom will you collaborate? How will you balance students’ needs with the postsecondary systems’ needs and resources? What methods will you use?

These are some of the questions I wrestle with daily in my role as Director, Student Service Excellence at York University in Toronto, Canada. A few months into this job, it became clear that co-creating with students is a no-brainer for my primary initiatives. But in my experience, it’s not been simple.

Read on to learn about some of the practices that seem to be working. I’ll also share some of the challenges encountered and lessons learned about co-creating services with students.

1) Co-design with students

The service excellence program that I’m responsible for is about ensuring that we have the culture, capabilities and systems to deliver the highest level of service to students and the York community. We could attempt to design this program ourselves as a leadership team or as a staff team. Instead, we’re choosing to co-design with students by drawing on human centered design and design thinking methodology.

Understanding student needs and pain points

Early on, we formed a student experience design team to lead a stream of the project and to participate in a diary study. Over a period of three months, one group of students submitted diaries documenting their experiences with various services while the other group interviewed students at large about their service experiences. In the end, we collected about one hundred specific student experiences with our services.

Meanwhile, we formed a staff working group to lead a parallel study across the portfolio of over four hundred student services staff members.

Creating spaces for staff and student collaboration

From there, we invited the same students and staff to interpret the stories, identify themes, and draw out the student needs and pain points. Finally, a student skillfully analyzed the totality of the data collected from students and staff. From the data, the student developed a set of agreed upon principles that characterize the desired future-state student and staff service experience. Service experience principles serve as a foundation for service excellence when they are modeled and embedded. The diary studies and the co-creative spaces proved to be effective data collection mechanisms for developing the student and staff experience principles. Continuing the collaboration, these same students are engaged in reflecting our principles into actual service enhancements.

Copyright York University. Used with permission.

Potential challenges with co-design

Human-centered design may fly in the face of established bureaucratic and organizational norms. Many professionals are familiar with design workshops. They think of post-its, sharpies, and collaborative ideation alongside users (e.g. students). The ideas and energy generated from these workshops are seductive but only represent a fraction of the work involved in a co-creative process. Trust me, I wish that’s all there was to it!

As you can see from this design-thinking framework from the Nielsen Norman Group, the flow is meant to be iterative, cyclical and user-centered (e.g. students).

Copyright Nielsen Norman Group. used with permission from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/design-thinking/

Design thinking is used to innovate and transform, is done over time, and requires a balance between adopting the perspective of the user and the postsecondary system as a whole. In Design at Work, Dunne calls these the tensions of inclusion, disruption and perspective.

The implementation of such “design thinking” is rarely accomplished in a day.

It’s essential that your user-group (e.g. students) see the value in being involved and are offered multiple avenues to engage. It’s equally important that your senior leadership team chooses to champion and invest in long-term resources to sustain such a program and shift in work. Thankfully, mine have been supportive.

2) Be agile and responsive to student desires

The other initiative I’m responsible for is to work with a brilliant team at York and at IBM to build and launch a student virtual assistant. The potential to elevate student satisfaction, engagement and outcomes through a smart virtual assistant is exciting…and daunting. From the beginning, we’ve tried to implement a project plan that is structured, yet agile, and responsive to student desires.

Copyright York University. Used with permission.

Responding to student desires

Before it was a student virtual assistant, it was just an idea. The hope was to leverage artificial intelligence to enhance student experiences and outcomes. Instead of jumping to the solution, we sought to understand the problem from students’ perspectives.

We asked students to tell us what they needed through design thinking sessions. Based on their desires and our feasibility and viability analysis, it was determined that we would start by creating a student virtual assistant. Throughout our rapid building period, we periodically went back to students to test whether we “got it right”. Sometimes we didn’t, but in a responsive environment, we want to ensure that we aren’t building based on our assumptions of students’ desires.

Using an agile approach

After the testing period, we launched a proof of concept in which we engaged 100+ students for 12 weeks to help the student virtual assistant get better and better at responding to inquiries. Through incremental and iterative sequences (known as sprints), our team made daily tweaks, changes and improvements to the virtual assistant.

After a successful proof-of-concept, we launched the student virtual assistant to a wider segment of the undergraduate population. Yet again, in an effort to be responsive and enable a degree of agility and responsiveness, we launched it in BETA mode with built-in mechanisms for students to give feedback about the content. Students are showing us where to take their virtual assistant next.

Potential challenges with an agile and responsive (student) service design approach

In my experience, agile and responsive service design is resource intensive. I’ve found that it’s important for the project team and senior leadership to clearly articulate the problem to solved, the opportunity to be had, the scope of the proposed solution, and the resources required (including from

Concluding thoughts about co-creating with students

While co-creating doesn’t guarantee that you will be able to meet everyone’s expectations, our student participants have voiced that they feel more connected to the institution. Moreover, they’re demonstrating leadership, communication, information management, thinking and problem solving skills. In time, we’ll all benefit from the ultimate outcomes of this co-creative journey. For now, here are some student impressions of co-creating WITH us:

  • “It’s so rare to be asked what WE want, beyond a survey here and there. This [initiative] goes even further and asks us to literally be a part of designing the solutions from the ground up.” – Student involved in the service excellence initiative
  • “Opportunities like this support students as they become leaders and guide students to think beyond their own experience to the experiences of those who will attend York in the years ahead.” – Student involved in the service excellence initiative
  • “Being able to be a part of a group that is shaping something that will be so integral to the student experience is such an amazing opportunity.” – Student involved in the student virtual assistant proof of concept

Personally, I think the only thing that co-creation guarantees is learning (for individuals and for the organization). In my case, learning has been about being able to plan, act, and learn all at the same time, to embrace failure and ambiguity, and to use/encourage adaptive forms of leadership. I think this is helping me to be a better higher education contributor.

Now it’s your turn to share, how will you (or do you) co-create with students?

I’d love to hear from you @DavidIpYam on Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram. If you’re interested in student success, check out my podcast, the Student Success Exchange.

Thanks for reading.

David Ip Yam is a higher education professional and leadership educator. You can learn more about David and his work at davidipyam.com

Studying Shared Governance Approaches to Managing Student Services

By Jacqueline Beaulieu

Spoiler Alert: This blog post shares details pertaining to my dissertation research (in progress) that examines the outcomes and implications of an Ontario provincial government policy that requires publicly assisted universities to negotiate compulsory non-tuition-related ancillary fees with students. I discuss how this research connects to the Supporting Student Success project and how my prior work on the latter supports my ability to undertake my dissertation research.

Would you like to learn about opportunities to participate in the forthcoming phase of this research? If so, keep on reading!


If you are connected to student affairs and services and/or student governments in Canada, you are likely familiar with recent headlines concerning the Divisional Court of Ontario’s November decision to quash the Ontario Provincial Government’s newly implemented Student Choice Initiative. Announced in January, 2019 as taking effect beginning in the 2019-2020 academic year, the initiative allowed individual postsecondary students to opt out of certain formerly compulsory non-tuition-related ancillary fees newly categorized by the Provincial Government as “non-essential”. For folks from outside of Ontario: “compulsory non-tuition-related ancillary fees” is a term used to describe fees typically (but not exclusively) levied above and in addition to tuition for the purposes of recovering costs of student services not normally eligible to be funded via capital or operating revenue (MTCU, 2019). These fees specifically recover costs of student services provided by postsecondary institutions.

The Student Choice Initiative also permits individual students to opt out of certain formerly compulsory student society fees categorized as “non-essential”. These incidental fees are collected by postsecondary institutions on behalf of the corresponding student governments, typically to support the governance function and services they provide to students. The fees are approved by students according to agreed upon policies and procedures of the respective student government(s).

The Province described their aim as providing individual students the opportunity to determine which services, groups, and initiatives they would like to use and/or support. Under the terms of the initiative, students would continue to pay compulsory fees for services categorized as “essential” which included:

  • Athletics and recreation,
  • Academic supports*
  • Career services,
  • Health and counselling,
  • Student buildings,
  • Travel/walk safe programs,
  • Discounted transportation passes,
  • Health and dental plans (where students did not have alternate coverage),
  • Student ID cards
  • Transcripts and graduation

*Institutions cannot levy additional compulsory fees in addition to tuition for items and services connected to classroom learning unless exempted by policy. Examples of exemptions include: fees for in-province field trips, learning materials retained by students, and placement services for work terms.

Note that the following types of services are not included in the above list of essential services:

  • Most services (other than those listed above) provided by student governments
  • Student newspapers, media, and other communications
  • Services specific to supporting students from diverse and/or marginalized backgrounds
  • Leadership education programming (offered as co-curricular learning),
  • Community-based learning and outreach (offered as co-curricular learning),
  • Mentoring programs

The initiative was met with controversy, with several student organizations pushing back for reasons that included a perceived lack of consultation, a shared belief that the Province was overstepping its authority, and some speculation that student organizations were being targeted. At the same time, some conservative student groups and the B’nai Brith of Canada League for Human Rights supported the initiative, citing that not all students supported their student organizations.

The initiative was subsequently challenged in court by the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (one of the province’s student associations) and the York Federation of Students (a student representative body serving undergraduate students at York University in Toronto). The University of Toronto Graduate Students Union and B’nai Brith of Canada League for Human Rights served as intervenors.

The Divisional Court of Ontario decided to quash the initiative on the basis that the Province lacked the legal authority to govern agreements between postsecondary institutions and student governments concerning student fees. You can read more about the Divisional Court’s decision here. The Province is currently appealing this decision.

While the introduction and subsequent quashing of the Student Choice Initiative appears to have garnered some attention from members of the broader public, those who are less familiar with this topic might not realize that students attending Ontario’s publicly assisted colleges and universities have held a collective right to democratically approve compulsory non-tuition-related ancillary fees for almost 26 years. Prior to 1994, universities could unilaterally implement “discretionary fees” (the term used for what would later be called “compulsory non-tuition-related ancillary fees”) to recover costs associated with student services. Growing discretionary fees and a corresponding financial burden for students sparked public debate; the Provincial Government subsequently implemented a policy on compulsory non-tuition-related ancillary fees on March 23, 1994.

According to this policy, compulsory non-tuition-related ancillary fees can only be introduced or increased if approved via procedures outlined in a protocol agreed to by a college or university’s administration and student government(s) (MTCU, 2019). Should a college or university implement a new fee or fee increase that contradicts the provisions outlined in the policy and/or the institution’s corresponding protocol(s) and no resolution is achieved among a protocol’s signatories, the Provincial Government may reduce the institution’s operating grant by an amount up to the equivalent of the revenue raised by the new fee or fee increase (MTCU, 2019). Institutions’ protocols can be renegotiated or adjusted at any time upon mutual agreement of the relevant parties.

My dissertation research (in progress) examines the outcomes and implications of this policy for stakeholders connected to the province’s publicly assisted universities. The study responds to growing demand for such research (e.g., Aitchison et al., 2016; Evans et al., 2019) and will expand to include stakeholders situated at Ontario’s publicly assisted colleges upon the completion of my dissertation.

I am fascinated by this policy as it represents an interesting and rare example of a scenario where students are not only included in institutional decision-making (e.g., where they are included in small numbers as members of Boards of Governors, Senates, departmental committees, etc.), but their approval is required for decisions to advance.


History of Student Participation in Shared Governance

Canadian universities have received international attention in the past for the ways in which students were involved in institutional governance and decision-making, departmental committees, and other aspects of campus life (e.g., McGrath, 1970; Jones & Skolnik, 1997; Zuo & Ratsoy, 1999). Anecdotally, my sense is that these types of involvement opportunities are often valued by administrators, practitioners, and students. There can be considerable responsibility attached to these roles, however, they are commonly viewed as providing students with valuable learning and experiences. Many share my view that institutions also stand to benefit from regularly engaging with students’ ideas and perspectives. At the same time, we find ourselves increasingly hearing about growing pressures that present-day students are facing (e.g., accessing majors; obtaining acceptance to graduate and professional programs; rising costs of attendance; managing family-related responsibilities; preparing for competitive job markets). These pressures can be viewed as being at odds in some ways with the messaging students often receive about the importance of getting involved in their campus communities. Which begs a question: what are related implications for shared governance? For student services? For student learning?

I am eager to learn more about the opportunities and/or challenges that can arise from this type of policy arrangement and whether or not (and if so, how) related opportunities and challenges have changed over time. My hope is that the study’s findings will inform and support the important continued work of policy stakeholders. Lastly, I hope the findings might provide inspiration as we grapple with the question below:

What should student participation in shared governance and institutional decision-making “look like” in modern-day postsecondary institutions?

Connection to the Supporting Student Success study

Not too long ago, I joked the Supporting Student Success Study could be viewed as the metaphorical “egg” to my dissertation research, the figurative “chicken” in this case. That is, the Supporting Student Success Study examined how student services at Ontario’s publicly assisted universities organize to support student success. My subsequent project examines the outcomes and implications of a policy that “lays” (pun intended) parameters for negotiating substantial portions of student affairs and services’ budgets. How the policy and the universities’ corresponding protocols’ outcomes influence student services practitioners’ efforts to support student success is of key interest to me as a researcher and practitioner.

This represents one of many reasons why I am grateful to have had the experience of working with Tricia and colleagues on the Supporting Student Success study. In doing so, I gained a host of relevant knowledge and skills that are supporting my ability to undertake the data collection and analyze and interpret this study’s findings. One lesson that I learned was the importance of deeply engaging the knowledge, perspectives, and expertise of the fullest spectrum of stakeholders possible. Doing so requires substantial investments of time and resources; however, tends to result in findings that better capture the essence of what is occurring at our campuses. This leads to well-informed findings that are detailed, nuanced, and ultimately useful for practice and policymaking.

I am equally thankful that Tricia is contributing her expertise and mentorship as a member of my dissertation committee, which is being chaired by Professor Emeritus Dan Lang- one of our country’s leading scholars in the area of postsecondary finance and administration.


Want to learn more about opportunities to participate in the forthcoming phase of research?

Over the next few months, several opportunities will be available to those interested in contributing relevant information, thoughts, and perspectives to this ongoing research.

Are you a senior student affairs and services administrator working at one of Ontario’s publicly assisted universities or federated institutions?

If so, you will be invited to participate in an online survey designed to engage your knowledge, perspectives, and expertise relevant to the research topic.

Keep an eye on your inbox for an important email containing further information and an invitation to participate.

Are you a university administrator or student affairs and services staff member working at one of Ontario’s publicly assisted universities or federated institutions?

Are you a student government executive or student member of the board of governors (or equivalent governing body) at one of these institutions?   

Stay tuned to find out if I will be visiting your campus in the coming months!

I am conducting interviews and focus groups at several “case study” universities designed to engage the relevant knowledge, perspectives, and expertise of diverse policy stakeholders.

Please note that every effort will be made to ensure that individual participants and their organizations are not identifiable in the reporting of the study’s findings.

Finally… what were you up to in the mid-1990s? Were you involved in or consulted regarding the policy’s development and implementation? A protocol’s development and implementation?

If your answer is “yes” to one or more of these questions, please consider contacting me via email if you would like to learn more about an opportunity to participate in an interview on the topic of the policy’s origins and past.

You may be interested to know… that individuals affiliated with the Provincial Government, Council of Ontario Universities, and provincial student associations are also being invited to participate in this research.

Concluding Thoughts

My hope is that my research related efforts will support many of you in the good work that you do with students. For those working at Ontario’s publicly assisted colleges and in other policy contexts where comparable policies are in place or being considered, my hope is that you will be able to glean all kinds of relevant learning from the insights provided by this study’s participants. By enabling us to develop a more comprehensive understanding of this policy’s outcomes- from initial implementation to present- this study’s findings could be used to support good policymaking… if and when stakeholders decide it is time to revisit the policy.


Jacqueline Beaulieu is a PhD Candidate studying Higher Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. Her scholarly work is located at the nexus of higher education governance, finance, administration, and student success. Prior to pursuing full-time studies, she worked in student affairs and services at universities in British Columbia, Ontario, and Michigan (USA). Examples of her past professional responsibilities include the design and implementation of a new first-year experience program and providing oversight for a portfolio of campus life services.

She is also a digital content creator on the rise: her YouTube videos on academic skills and graduate student success have been viewed 4000+ times in less than one year. You are encouraged to stay connected with her via email (jacqueline.beaulieu@mail.utoronto.ca), by subscribing to her YouTube Channel, and following her on Twitter (@jacquiebeaulieu) and Instagram (@phdessentials).

References (Non-Hyperlinked)

Aitchison, C., Brockie, L., Oliver, B., & MacDonald, R. (2016). Policy paper: Ancillary fees. Retrieved from https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/ousa/pages/86/attachments/original/1479404004/Ancillary_Fees_document.pdf?1479404004

Evans, E., Gerrits, M., Ibrahim, F., and Sethumadhavan, N. (2019). Policy paper: Ancillary and incidental fees. Retrieved from https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/ousa/pages/1900/attachments/original/1575857033/Ancillary___Incidental_Fees_document.pdf?1575857033

Jones, G. A., & Skolnik, M. L. (1997). Governing boards in Canadian universities. The Review of Higher Education, 20(3), 277-295.

McGrath, E. J. (1970). Should students share the power? A study of their role in college and university governance. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (2019). Tuition fee framework and ancillary fee guidelines: Publicly-assisted universities. Retrieved from http://www.tcu.gov.on.ca/pepg/mtcu-university-tuition-framework-guidelines-mar2019-en.pdf

Zuo, B., & Ratsoy, E. W. (1999). Student participation in university governance. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 29(1), 1-26.