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Academic Counseling Can Help Students in a Critical Task: Choosing a Major

In today’s labour market, choosing a university major is one of the earliest and most critical decisions a student will have to make. Increasingly, universities are offering academic counseling and other services to help students choose the major that suits them best.

High school graduates in Egypt and other Arab countries are now discovering just how confusing this choice can be as they confront a bewildering array of options. Al-Fanar Media spoke with three educators at Heriot-Watt University Dubai about the importance of choosing the right major and how universities can help.

Ammar Kaka, the university’s provost and vice principal, said the radical changes in the labour market have led to a similar change in jobs and the skills needed by current employees and university graduates alike.

“This is where the importance of academic counseling comes in,” Kaka wrote in an email. Academic advising is important at all levels, but especially at universities, he said, “since they are fully aware of the changes in the labour market, jobs, and skills required in various industries.”

Academic counseling draws a road map for students, Kaka said. It is one of the university’s responsibilities to guide high school students and help them choose their majors according to their own capabilities and interests, in addition to the needs of the labour market.

Ways in which universities can achieve this include partnerships with schools that allow students to attend events where they can learn about various majors and the technical, cognitive, and personal skills that each requires.

Bridging the Skills Gap

“Academic counseling draws a road map for students. It is one of the university’s responsibilities to guide high school students and help them choose their majors according to their own capabilities and interests, in addition to the needs of the labour market.”

Ammar Kaka Provost and vice principal of Heriot-Watt University Dubai

Studies have shown that there is a direct link between guiding students to appropriate majors and bridging the current skills gap, the disconnect between the skills that employers need and the skills that job seekers possess, Kaka said. This awareness helped his campus find an effective and maximum use of available human resources and competencies, and avoid misemployment and waste of resources, he said.

At Heriot-Watt University Dubai, officials often find students confused about choosing their major, Kaka said. A common dilemma is in choosing the “guaranteed major,” he wrote, “or the major you prefer to pursue and excel in; the one that will help you to make the most of your soft skills and talents, and employ them in your studies and future career later on.”

To help students solve this dilemma, the university has an academic counseling team that supports students through continuous communication, Kaka said. Advisors help students explore their academic interests, identify resources for additional information and support, and develop study plans that suit their educational goals.

“It is a decision-making process, where the exchange of information between the student and the mentor highlights suitable options and provides students with a successful and smooth academic experience later,” he wrote.

He added: “Academic advisors can also help students prepare for initial tests, help them better understand their rights and responsibilities as university students, and explain how the enrollment process and choosing courses works.”

New Emphasis on Soft Skills

Rajinder Sharma, an associate professor and head of the Degree Entry Programmes (DEP) at Heriot-Watt University Dubai, said universities have many ways to support and guide students in choosing the majors that best suit their abilities, interests and goals.

“In a changing labour market, with increased demand for soft skills and a different set of technical skills, choosing a university major has become more difficult than ever,” Sharma said. “Recognising this fact, schools and universities are working tirelessly to bridge this gap.”

Foundational programmes like Heriot-Watt’s Degree Entry Programmes assist students in this transitional stage by providing them with the soft skills and work-readiness skills they will need to excel in the labour market, he said.

“In a changing labour market, with increased demand for soft skills and a different set of technical skills, choosing a university major has become more difficult than ever. Recognising this fact, schools and universities are working tirelessly to bridge this gap.”

Rajinder Sharma, Head of the Degree Entry Programme at Heriot-Watt University Dubai

“Specific programmes have been designed to provide students with a pathway to an undergraduate degree by refining their writing and research skills, assessment and exam techniques, and information technology skills,” he said.

Upon successfully passing these programs, students will be able to join various disciplines such as engineering, data science, robotics, autonomous and interactive systems, and others.

“The Degree Entry Programmes last for two semesters,” Sharma said. “This is an ideal time frame for students to transition smoothly into their undergraduate studies, while ensuring that they will not be delayed in continuing their studies.”

“Such foundation programs can build students’ confidence and work-readiness skills by developing their soft skills and providing work experience,” he said.

On-Campus Initiatives

Tadhg O’Donovan, deputy vice principal and chair of the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Heriot-Watt University Dubai, said the university had several counseling initiatives to serve students.

For engineers, for instance, the university offers the “Engineer for a Day” programme, which lets high school students learn about different engineering fields by living the life of an engineer, with all its challenges and difficulties, while learning about tools to overcome them.

Such an experience also provides a space for students to present ideas and enhance their technical and personal skills, including the soft skills like communication, organisation and planning, teamwork, critical thinking, and crisis management that now play a significant role in determining their future success, O’Donovan said.

“Such initiatives and events are solutions to provide the necessary support and guidance to students, and ways and resources to help them better choose majors by providing them with practical experience,” he explained. “This will make the step of choosing a major go smoothly and free of difficulties.”

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