Many Arab youth view what they will study at university as something that will be dictated by their scores on high-school exit exams. But some programs in Jordan and Lebanon help students actively choose a focus for their university studies.
“The majority of students lack comprehensive knowledge of the available university disciplines’ quality and suitability to their own preferences,” said Dima Hammad, head of Eye on the Future, a community-based youth program in Jordan that helps high school students choose their university majors. Hammad said many students enroll in prestigious academic programs such as medical and engineering faculties and later discover that those disciplines don’t fulfill their expectations. (See a related article, “Why I Left the ‘Dream Profession’.”)
In most Arab countries, university admissions are based mainly on the results of high-school exit exams. After the exams, students are distributed among academic departments according to their scores.
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This admission system causes many students to wind up studying subjects they are not interested in. Despite years of criticism of the system, which usually doesn’t take into account a student’s interests, aptitudes, or performance in secondary school, it is still in use.
No data track the resulting waste of human potential, but many educators believe such data is not needed. “The reality, personal experiences and our everyday observations prove it,” Hammad said.
Mariam Omran, 18, from Jordan’s al-Karak governorate, south of Amman, wanted to study fashion design, an interest that grew out of her love for painting. But her family wanted her to study engineering, because her exam scores qualified her for it.
Another student, Muslim Akhmis, is about to graduate from the faculty of public administration at the University of Jordan. But he came to feel dissatisfied with his courses and felt that working in an office was not for him. “I was not aware of the nature of my study and I thought it would provide me with a lot of jobs in the future,” he said. “But when I started the actual study I found that it was different from what I expected.”
“The majority of students lack comprehensive knowledge of the available university disciplines’ quality and suitability to their own preferences.”Dima Hammad
Head of the Eye on the Future program in Jordan.
Akhmis now works as a volunteer with the Eye on the Future. “I wanted to share my experience and support students in choosing their university education knowingly, not ignorantly,” he said. He added that high school students don’t always understand the difference between high school courses and university programs of study.
Social Activities and Online Campaigns
In addition to educating school graduates about the nature of university disciplines, students need to know the employment potential for their course of study. In the Arab region, 9.81 percent of the population is unemployed, compared to the global unemployment rate of 5.38, according to 2018 statistics from the World Bank.
To educate high school students, Eye on the Future, which has been supported by volunteers since 2011, works face-to-face with students, and communicates with them through advertising and social media. Most of the volunteers are university students who explain various disciplines and the branches and divisions of universities and help students pick a course of study that fits their expectations.
“The great interaction the program has with young people is a measurement of its success,” said Hammad. Eye on the Future has served more than 35,000 students in Jordan over the past eight years with the help of more than 500 volunteers, Hammad says.
Lebanon’s Programs Expand
Such initiatives are not limited to Jordan. Recently, the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut launched a School-to-University Transition Program. The program targets vulnerable students in Beirut. In the spring of 2019, it worked with 100 students in the 11th grade in public schools. Sixty percent of the students were Lebanese and 40 percent were Syrian. They all participated in 20 hours of practical training in various disciplines. A student interested in nursing, for instance, might learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and how to respond to a choking victim. All students spent 10 hours of working with counselors over a period of two months discussing topics such as how to apply for scholarships.
“There is a big gap in awareness and guidance at the level of public and private schools, which we must address early and at the national level,” said Hana el-Ghali, director of the Education and Youth Policy Research Program at the Issam Fares Institute.
El-Ghali believes that one of the reasons behind the high unemployment among university graduates in Lebanon, which hit 25 percent among all adults and exceeds 36 percent among youth, is the lack of guidance in choosing university disciplines.
“There is a great need to start providing counseling at early school levels,” she said. “Higher education is very expensive in Lebanon, and the family is waiting for its children to graduate in order to work rather than being a burden on it.”
Another Lebanese organization, Unite Lebanon Youth, which is supported by a wide variety of donors, offers a program called BRIDGE that prepares refugee and disadvantaged youth in the 10th and 11th grades for the U.S.-based university entrance exam known as the SAT and gives them career and college counseling. The program also helps the students apply for scholarships.
“I think there is no way out of the refugee camp other than education,” said Melek el-Nimer, founder of the organization. “We only seek to facilitate their access to their rights and guide them towards the appropriate discipline.”
Still, the impact of these initiatives remains limited, given they have little government support. In Jordan, Hammad said, “We are working through volunteer efforts and have no source of income, let alone the difficulties we face to reach the target group and convince them of the importance of choosing a specialization carefully. We need more support to expand geographically and reach more students.”
El-Ghali, at the American University of Beirut, seems more optimistic about the future. The university’s program will follow up students over the next year as they make decisions about pursuing higher education, and will track their success in applying to universities and scholarships.
“If the program works, I hope it will expand to become a national initiative,” she said.