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Cuba at the crossroads of greater international engagement

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Improving relations with the global community, and notably with the US, have set the stage for stronger international ties between Cuba and other countries in the region and beyond
  • Cuba has long been an important study destination in the region, and is especially noted for its medical schools
  • Strengthening inbound and outbound tourism and an improving technical infrastructure will likely further improve the movement of people, information, and ideas on and off the island

Cuba has reached a pivotal point in its history. Signs of rapprochement with the United States and new economic opportunities have drawn the interest of international investors. Such developments could prompt the nation’s leaders to seek greater engagement with the global economy, and this would in turn have far-reaching effects on the education sector.

According to UNESCO figures, Cuba hosts 12 times the number of students it sends abroad, with its 1,800 outbound students comparing to nearly 23,000 students hosted in 2012. So far, there are no indications outbound student numbers will rise sharply in the immediate future. Outbound tourism, however, skyrocketed in 2013, particularly in the form of short trips to Mexico, the US, and Spain.

However, for those who do go abroad for longer periods the process will be somewhat more convenient due to changes in the island’s permiso de salida system. Previously, Cubans had to go through a long, expensive process to obtain permission to travel, but as of January 2013 most have needed only a Cuban passport and a visa from the destination country.

A broad expansion in the tourism sector has helped Cuba form new links around the planet. For example, Brazil and Singapore are backing a US$1 billion project in the port of Mariel, which when completed will feature a free trade zone. Hundreds of international companies have applied for permits to operate there to date. Cuba has even extended invitations to selected American companies, which in turn are pressuring Washington for more freedom to operate on the island. In the meantime, Mexican and Belgian companies have already received the green light to set up shop in Mariel.

And in June, Cuba regained a link with Spain when Iberia airlines reopened a direct air route to Cuba following a hiatus of almost two years. It had stopped flights to the island, and to several other South American countries, due to profitability issues. But Iberia spokespeople had always suggested service would resume to Cuba when conditions allowed, and this past summer they cited improved relations between the US and Cuba as allowing for potential revenue generation on the route. Since Spain is the top choice for Cubans studying abroad, they now have another transport option.

Iberia’s decision offers an indication how strongly Cuba’s fortunes are affected by its relationship with its northern neighbour. But while there has been improvement, the US has shown no signs yet of lifting its crippling 53-year economic embargo.

In the interim, Cuba has been busy forging new economic ties with China, France, India, and other nations in areas ranging from pharmaceuticals to oil exploration. Today it has direct air connections with more than 50 foreign cities, and also has three cruise ship terminals and 39 international marinas.

These are all good developments for Cuba, but outbound student mobility is primarily hampered not by poor travel links, but by poor income levels. A Bendixen & Amandi poll conducted in March 2015 for Univision Noticias/Fusion in collaboration with The Washington Post collected some of the most detailed information available for Cuba in decades.

Among the findings were that 34% of Cubans receive remittances sent from abroad. This is not unusual in the region – El Salvador’s remittances are 16% of the country’s total GDP – yet it illustrates the economic drag on Cuban mobility.

Another mobility-related finding of the same survey is that, asked what they would like to accomplish within the next five years, 64% of Cubans selected the choice “travel abroad,” while seven other aspirations were ranked lower, with “go to college” at the bottom of the list at a mere 10%.

Cuba as a study destination

But while outbound mobility is unlikely to change in the near term, inbound mobility from other countries may soon receive a strong boost due to the impact of recent developments upon communications, banking, and travel.

The United States, for example, has famously eased restrictions related to various types of business dealings, which means companies can now export telephones, computers, and Internet technology and can also ship supplies to private Cuban enterprises. Rules for money transfers to the island have also been eased.

As noted in previous reports on Cuba, the island has long had a strong receiving market, one admired for the achievements of its education system despite the US embargo. Last year the World Bank issued a report that was highly critical of every education system in Latin America “except possibly Cuba’s, [which] is very close to the high standards, high academic talent, high or at least adequate compensation, and high professional autonomy that characterise the world’s most effective education systems.”

Though the World Bank and other bodies consider Cuba’s overall system similar to advanced systems elsewhere, inbound mobility is fuelled predominantly by students from poor and developing nations, with most coming from Bolivia, China, Ecuador, Peru, and Pakistan. Among OECD nations, UNESCO figures rank only Mexico among the top ten senders to the island. Nations such as Germany, France, and Sweden are estimated to send no more than a handful of students each year.

This likely derives from the fact that Cuba’s university sector, while better than many, doesn’t rate as highly as the educational system as a whole. Universidad de La Habana and several other institutions are internationally respected, but in recent decades many Cuban university professors have seen the value of their pay decline, driving some into other endeavours, such as private tutoring. This exodus of faculty has of course affected teaching quality. The university dropout rate has risen as well – to more than 30% – as students also seek income outside the academic path.

Some of Cuba’s tertiary reforms have brought about tougher admissions standards and a greater focus on agricultural and technical sciences. Since the introduction of those changes, the government has expanded its goals to include:

  • The establishment of a new two- to three-year educational level called the Educación Superior no Universitaria, or Non-University Higher Education, the goal being to prepare participants for specific occupations in the labour market and decrease underemployment.
  • Modified admission procedures for night courses and distance education, with increased enrolment facilitated by removing entrance exams – which are currently the same as for normal university degree courses.
  • A shortening of most undergraduate programmes to no more than four years.
  • The establishment of a legal framework for the continuous training of professionals, with the goal of maintaining a fully prepared workforce and providing opportunities for personal development.
  • A new requirement to master the English language before graduating with a tertiary degree, with universities offering both structured classes, as well as providing students with courses and access to computer platforms to allow them to learn independently.

Rodolfo Alarcón Ortiz, Cuba’s Higher Education Minister, described these new measures at a September 2015 press conference as contributions “to improving the quality, equity, and relevance of higher education.” About the new English language requirement, he said, “We have to solve the problem that Cuban professionals are not able to express themselves in the universal language of our time.”

This statement strongly illustrates the shift of thinking taking place within the Cuban government. The announced changes are slated for introduction beginning with the 2016/17 academic year.

Despite suffering from some of the same challenges as regular universities, Cuba’s medical schools remain popular and reputable, and one of the goals of the government is to make the island a hub for medical education. The international community has shown interest, both in schooling opportunities and the fruits of Cuban medical research. Earlier this year the French company Abivax licensed a hepatitis B treatment developed entirely by Cuban scientists. Similar opportunities for revenue-generating partnerships may exist, and could help curb steady defections from a medical sector that has lost more than 1,200 professionals since 2006.

While US companies are disadvantaged in forming links with Cuba, universities enjoy more latitude to bypass the embargo, and American schools have responded to political developments by expanding their presence on the island. Foremost among them is a group of Ivy League schools – comprising Johns Hopkins University, Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Northwestern University, and University of Pennsylvania – that have launched the largest US study abroad programme in Cuba to date. Known as CASA-Havana, it allows American and Cuban scholars to conduct side-by-side research into political, social, economic, and cultural issues affecting Latin America and the Caribbean.

Another area of Cuban education that remains in good health is its Spanish language sector. Greater ease of travel will make enrolment for foreigners in short courses more attractive. For courses of up to four weeks, language schools and universities accept applicants who possess a standard tourist card, known on the island as a visa del tarjeta del turista. These are cheap to purchase, don’t need to be arranged in advance, are easily obtainable in all Cuban airports, and can be extended for 30 days from the date of expiration by visiting an immigration office and paying an additional fee.

Giving tech a boost

Since President Obama’s easing of restrictions, direct telephone connection between the US and Cuba has been established for the first time in 15 years, US credit and banking companies have positioned themselves to accept charges from the island, and the Cuban government has given approval for the opening of the island’s first wireless hub. These and other steps – some important, others symbolic – boost Cuba’s already high potential as a study abroad destination.

Among all the recent changes in Cuba, it is those to the digital tech sector that have the most potential to affect the island’s education.

The government has been vocal about upgrading its telecommunications infrastructure, particularly since an undersea cable between the island and Venezuela provided markedly better Internet service beginning in January 2013. That cable was followed by another to Jamaica. However Cuba continues to suffer from poor connectivity and limited connection speeds.

That is likely to soon change. Two more oceanic connections will arrive within the next year, and the government will modernise the country’s tech infrastructure further by installing a fiber-optic backbone across the island. The official plan is to cut Internet service prices, set up more than 100 cyber cafes, and have 50% of private homes online by 2020. Installing and servicing this new infrastructure will create more jobs in a high-tech industry that currently employs only about 5,000 workers. The new system may well also facilitate communication between prospective students and international educators, and potentially give Cubans access to MOOCs and other forms of off-island distance education.

Despite the lack of available jobs, some Cuban universities have been preparing students for the coming technological influx for years. For example:

  • Universidad de las Ciencias Informáticas (UCI) was founded in 2002 and has bestowed 20,000 computer science degrees;
  • After UCI’s arrival, other Cuban universities added technology to their curricula, and each year 5,500 IT engineers graduate, 33% with masters or doctoral degrees;
  • At the secondary level, 40,000 teens graduate every year with coding skills in languages and systems such as Java, Android, Windows, and Linux-Unix.

The future of Cuban education

In Cuba, necessity has always brought about inventiveness. This inventiveness, plus a strong educational tradition, growing fluency with – and access to – technology, and more focus on English proficiency make Cuban youth good candidates for international study. But for the time being, financial obstacles remain. Scholarships can make up some of the monetary shortfall, but there is no indication yet what Cuban government policy would be toward overseas study for larger numbers of its citizens.

As a host, Cuba already welcomes tens of thousands of international students each year and has become a popular destination for Latin Americans, Caribbean islanders, and Africans. The government plans to ride the crest of recent political changes to expand Cuba’s role in this area. But while rapidly growing tertiary links have already brought in select groups of students from more universities than in the past, the island may not truly become a hub until its technology, communication, and university teaching quality better match those of its neighbours in the region.

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