Changes to Cuban education sector could bring shift in student mobility patterns

Recent changes in Cuba could result in a shift in student mobility patterns related to the island, and today on ICEF Monitor we’ll look at some of the new regulations, take a snapshot of the country’s education system, and try to determine what the future holds.

More mobility to and from Cuba

Perhaps the most important change, one impacting the mobility of all Cubans, has been the rescinding of the permiso de salida stating that citizens could not freely leave the country. Previously, Cubans had to go through a long, expensive process to obtain permission to travel, but as of mid January 2013 most will need only a Cuban passport and a visa from the destination country.

Cubans may now remain abroad for up to 24 months without having to renew their papers. But while movement off the island will involve jumping through fewer bureaucratic hoops, this does not mean explosive growth for Cuba’s sending market, as travel remains economically impossible for the vast majority of the population.

As an example of how thin the trickle of students from Cuba is nowadays, consider what has happened with Russia. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of Cubans studied in Soviet universities, but in 2012-13 only four Cubans studied in Russia due to the high cost of air travel.

But as a receiving market, Cuba is remarkably dynamic and robust.

At the moment, there are about 22,580 international students from numerous countries working toward degrees in Cuba, with more than 19,125 of the total enroled in the country’s famed medical schools. In 2012, 11,009 medical students graduated: 5,315 Cuban and 5,694 foreigners from 59 countries (e.g. from Bolivia 2,400+; Nicaragua 429; Peru 453; Ecuador 308; Guatemala 170; and Colombia 175). This was the highest total of medical graduates in the history of the country.

The Cuban education sector has agreements with many nations and regions, including Jamaica, Belize, Malaysia, Peru, and the European Union. In the last two years Cuba has strengthened ties with Vietnam, and, as reported on ICEF Monitor last July, South Africa, where an agreement was signed boosting tertiary-level exchange between the countries.

Cuban-US relations

Cuba’s relationship with its northern neighbour the United States has long been difficult, and the problems have inevitably had a negative effect on academic relations between the two countries. But even amid longstanding hostility and an economic blockade against Cuba that is now 53 years old and running, there is new room for academic institutions to forge ties.

US students and academics had been exempt from travel restrictions to Cuba, but in 2003, under President George W. Bush, the US eliminated travel for people-to-people educational exchanges unrelated to academic coursework, and in 2004 tightened travel rules further. However, in 2011 President Barack Obama removed the Bush era regulations, opening the way for greater educational interaction.

In addition, earlier this year the US State Department untangled some licensing issues related to third-party study abroad providers operating credit-bearing educational programmes in Cuba. While the 2011 Obama moves had eased the situation related to exchange programmes, the licenses to run them had not been forthcoming. With the licensing problems sorted, full-fledged exchange programmes are fully enabled.

One such exchange is already off the ground. Academic Programs International (API) in conjunction with Marist College is operating short term and long-term study abroad programmes in Cuba for academic credit in the field of Cuban and Caribbean Studies. US students who participate attend classes at the Universidad de La Habana.

Tulane University, located in New Orleans, has had a longstanding relationship with the Universidad de La Habana, and this year sent a delegation to Havana to pave the way for expanding the university’s involvement there, with a focus on public health and science. Other universities with Cuban connections include the University of Pittsburgh, Indiana University Southeast, and Burlington College.

Around 375 Americans studied in Cuba during the 2010-11 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education, and that number looks set to increase. Of course, the vast majority of foreign students in Cuba come from other Latin American nations, and the effect on the region has been profound. According to the website People’s World, 11% of Latin American scientists obtained their PhD’s in Cuba.

Government reshuffling education sector

Annually, Cuba offers thousands of full scholarships to the Latin American School of Medicine via its seven-year Medical School Scholarship Program, however the government announced last year that places in the programme could be reduced by up to 900 for 2012/13. There are many reasons for the potential change, but in the broadest sense, educational costs have gone up and the government, which already spends about 13% of GDP on education, is looking for savings.

According to IPS News, other changes to higher education include:

  • official encouragement for Cuban students to major in agricultural and technical sciences;
  • tightening of enrolment places in the humanities;
  • tougher university entrance exams;
  • in a move designed to help boost production, more training for technicians and skilled workers, as well as support for vocational fields that can have an immediate impact on the economy.

One of the government’s main goals is to achieve greater food independence. Decades ago students were encouraged to go into agricultural fields, but in the 1980s the idea of studying agriculture fell out of favour because importing was cheap. But that has changed. The global recession has pushed Cuban importation costs up 25%.

The new policies may fill needs in the Cuban workforce and economy, but have had a drastic effect on local enrolments.

In 2007/2008 there were about 744,000 local students enrolled in Cuban universities. The numbers began falling the next year, and by 2011/2012 had declined to a little over 351,000, according to the national statistics office, ONEI.

These changes have been disconcerting for Cubans, who – under the previous system saw the island’s literacy rise to 99.8% after a pre-revolution low of 60%-75% – have seen universities increase from three to more than 60, and now produce students that attain the highest scores in Latin America in language and mathematics, far outpacing countries like Argentina, Chile and Brazil.

Currently, five Cuban institutions appear in the 2012 QS Top University Rankings: Latin America:

  • Universidad de La Habana
  • Universidad de Oriente Santiago de Cuba
  • Ciudad Universitaria Jose Antonio Echeverria
  • Universidad Central Marta Abreu de Las Villas
  • Universidad de Cienfuegos Carlos Rafael Rodríguez

Cubans are rightly proud of their educational system, but the fact that advanced education had become a birthright, without regard for cost, has been cited by Cuban officials as a reason to make changes. President Raúl Castro told his National Assembly last year, “Social expenditures should be in accordance with real possibilities, and that means cutting those expenditures it is possible to do without.”

Other Cuba concerns

In addition to the recent restructuring and enrolment shifts, Cuba has other pressing issues with which to deal. Perhaps most important are the hits its medical training reputation has taken since graduates from the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina (ELAM) were barred from practicing in Costa Rica after failing exams in 2012.

But the problem may not be one of quality but rather incongruence. Ricardo Boza Cordero, director of the medical programme at the University of Costa Rica, told the Costa Rica Star that the ELAM and Costa Rican curricula were not aligned in at least 80% of the subject matters.

Also impacting on the education sector, Cuban Internet access remains substandard. While the country has an international IP link, it has little infrastructure and little leased line access. The blockade prevents Cuba connecting to swift global carrier cables in the Caribbean, and top-down control of content affects the efficiency of already slow satellite service. According to the International Telecommunication Union’s global ICT development ranking, connectivity is the third worst in Latin America, topping only Honduras and Nicaragua.

Education in a time of change

Though Cuban-funded scholarships for foreign students have been cut, potential growth in exchange from the massive US market could help bolster local enrolment numbers. On the present course, that seems very likely to happen, but few situations are as changeable and complex as Cuba’s where the US is concerned.

On the other hand, for Cubans, the situation is more clear-cut. Their country is one of the few in the world that had completely separated access to education from household income. As open spots at universities diminish, merit matters more than in the past, but families that can afford tutors have an advantage, something that flies in the face of the equal educational opportunity set down in the country’s constitution.

Only time will tell what effect this has, both academically and socially, but the mood of many Cubans was summed up by Havana architect Alejandro Padrón in an October Reuters article:

“It used to be that a university education, in one form or another, was almost a sure thing. Now you have to struggle. I understand that it was impossible to maintain everyone studying, but I still want to see my son go to the university.”



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