Student Counselling: Unconscionably Neglected?
The Academic Experience Project has already highlighted several significant and strategic themes that deserve greater attention of the policymakers and administrators in higher education. These themes include relevance of academic programmes, joy of learning, faculty behaviour, building community among students, helping students to settle in, and the dropout conundrum.
Another theme, virtually ignored but nonetheless important, is the state of the students' mental health and the lack of counselling available to them. It is vitally important for our universities to offer professional career and psychological counselling to assist the students in overcoming a myriad of challenges—academic pressures, loneliness, fatigue, harassment, food selection, health concerns, financial matters, relationship issues, homesickness, violence, depression, and much more. Higher education programmes have been around for decades, but nobody seems to have really cared about the non-academic challenges that students face, the resulting mental health issues, and the support they need. That is the unfortunate plight of our future nation-builders.
Most of the students come from different parts of the country, away from their parents and home, to pursue higher studies. They have to interact with and survive in a totally new environment suddenly. The age of the students at this stage is quite critical and they are vulnerable in more ways than one. Besides the need to pursue their studies, they get involved in other ways. Some students need to carry the burden of the family. Some face critical personal problems that they cannot share with their family or friends. Some are dissatisfied with their overall academic performance. Some have health issues. Most of them worry about their future careers and whether they will be able to find a suitable job to fulfil their dreams. These dark thoughts and attendant worries are a constant companion for many students with nowhere to turn. Yet they continue to be ignored while their mental pressures keep escalating.
Need we stress the importance of career/psychological counselling? The ideal counsellor with whom a student can share everything—without any fear or hesitation to seek solutions to his or her immediate problem—can be a huge boon. Such a counsellor, well-trained about student concerns, who is patient, warm, knowledgeable, observant, willing to listen, and has empathy, can be a full-time guide in a way that not even the faculty members can epitomise.
A student interacts with a faculty member only for the duration of a course or two. After the coursework is completed, they may not interact ever again. But a counsellor is one with whom the student can have interactions and attachment throughout his or her entire university life and, perhaps, beyond. In many universities abroad, the availability of a student counsellor is virtually guaranteed. The role of counselling is so important in their culture that its presence is ubiquitous. Yet we have continued to ignore the role of the counsellor in our culture. Why? While friends and family play a big role here, it is time to think of providing "professional assistance" to help build a confident future citizenry that can deal with adversity and forge ahead.
A counsellor may be responsible not only for helping students overcome personal life issues but also assisting with their academic programmes. In our country, students are often uninformed or ill-informed while selecting an academic programme to make a bet on the future. Many simply select a programme according to the wishes of their family or based on discussions with their friends. They do not know the intricacies or prospects of the programme for which many suffer immeasurable academic stress. Sometimes what is even more harmful is that they simply follow a trend without considering other factors that will ensure success.
For example, a student today enrols in an MBA programme or CSE major because that is the trend. A trained counsellor can weigh a student's strengths and weaknesses and provide assistance to enrol in a programme in which she or he can attain the best "fit." Thus, students will know what is taught in that programme, its pros and cons, difficulty levels, prior skillsets required to excel in the programme, and career prospects so that they can choose the programme in which they will build an enduring and worthwhile career. This will also ensure that the students do not get derailed in the middle of the programme and drop out with serious consequences. A good counsellor can help students develop their life goals and ensure correct placement to guide them for success.
Many students are generally bright, which shines through given the right set of opportunities. We must also acknowledge that many of our faculty members are highly qualified. Unfortunately, the two paths often do not intersect, and many bright students lose their focus and determination because of the failure of the higher education system to build synergies. Solid counselling programmes can play a vital role here. We strongly advocate that employing adequate numbers of "trained" counsellors be required in our universities—they can only have a net positive impact on student satisfaction and their subsequent success.
While there are other factors that can contribute to the well-rounded academic experience of our students in higher education, the payoff of appointing counsellors is incalculable. The immediate need is to begin a serious and sustained programme of training a cadre of professional counsellors not only for higher education, but also for other educational levels. At the same time, more research is needed to identify culture-specific issues that the counsellors must be trained to deal with. Studies must also be conducted regularly to assess the impact that the counsellors are making. With professional counsellors making deep inroads into higher education, the overall performance of the academic institutions should improve significantly. Its impact on building the needed human asset base will be a formidable achievement in the nation's journey to middle-income status and beyond.
Atanu Saha is working on his MBA degree at IBA, University of Dhaka. Syed Saad Andaleeb is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at IBA, University of Dhaka, and former Vice-Chancellor, BRAC University. For more information on The Academic Experience Project, contact Dr. Andaleeb at bdresearchA2Z@gmail.com.