Cuba Reforms Its Educational System

by Fernando Ravsberg

The deputy minister of Higher Education in Cuba says universities will be placed at the service of society. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES, Nov 23 — The changes being made in the Cuban educational system are far-reaching reforms with enormous long-term implications. They involve reducing the number of university students, increasing the slots for technicians, creating schools to train skilled workers and gearing the entire system to the needs of society.

The deputy minister of Higher Education of Cuba, Rodolfo Alarcon, explained to us where these reforms are heading.

What are the main steps of this readjustment? Has university enrollment been reduced?

Rodolfo Alarcon: Well, actually there has been no adjustment in available university enrollment. The whole movement of change that’s generally occurring in education in Cuba is based on achieving the optimum quality in the development of students. One measure that was implemented was the requirement of entrance examinations into higher education. These include math, Spanish and the history of Cuba, which are tests that must be taken and passed independently.

That has limited access, but it’s not that enrollment slots have decreased. This is something that must be resolved in the same measure that the pre-university education increases its quality and efficiency, and therefore more students pass the entrance exams.

Nevertheless, a youth who doesn’t pass still has the option to keep re-applying until they turn 25 and get one of the slots. What characterizes this movement is the achievement of the maximum possible quality of professional training in Cuba.

Does this encouraging of young people to go into mid-level technical careers and to become skilled workers have the intention of redressing the distribution of the labor force?

Rodolfo Alarcon: One of the distortions caused by that situation was that virtually everyone in high school was studying to go on to the university when in fact there was a tremendous need for mid-level technicians, people who could solve concrete problems. There’s a lack of them.

With the new system they can go back and do their university studies later, after working as a technician. That’s the way a young person who enrolls in technical level studies can help resolve the shortage that we have at this level. They’re being encouraged to go back to college later, after first working.

Cuba has more than one million college graduates. Photo: Raquel Perez

Cuba is one of the few Latin American countries that have guaranteed college access for all social sectors. So how is it going to ensure this now that access becomes more difficult?

Rodolfo Alarcon: That’s an interesting question. Cuba spends a significant amount of its meager resources on general education and on higher education in particular. We have various types of courses. The ones that are very resource demanding are the day courses, but we also have courses for workers who can’t attend as often and are therefore less expensive.

We have “distance education” programs that are going to be expanded and are even less expensive, though the initial investment is high. This allows everyone who wants to study in higher education to be able to do so, that’s the aim and what we’re working on.

It’s also being proposed that the university relate better to the needs of the economy. Is this similar to the European reforms?

Rodolfo Alarcon: Well, it’s not only the economy; it’s also society as a whole. Joining society to the market would be sounding the death knell for the university. The university must have a commitment to its society, which isn’t solely the market; there are also social needs. It has to anticipate the needs of society, that’s its role.

So part of its mission is to meet the needs of the economy, though that’s not the whole mission. It happens that to the extent that the Cuban economy, or the economy of any country, needs to expand, it’s logical that the university should work to help solve the problems of the economy; that’s part of its social commitment. The university should contribute to the economy with its actions, and that too is what we’re trying to do.

We have always tried to make the work of the university relevant, meaning that it meets the needs of society, though it must also be a source of suggestions and ideas that might be beyond what is generally thought in society at that time.

The new policy is directing young people towards technical training for Cuba’s development. Photo: Raquel Perez

The work of Cuban professionals is the country’s main source of income. Will this remain the same or will the university be directed towards other sectors more productive than the services?

Rodolfo Alarcon: No, we’re putting a great deal of emphasis on technical and agricultural fields. Those are the main needs of Cuba at the moment. That’s why we’re trying to direct students toward these areas and creating opportunities so that they study these fields. The historical level of preparation of teachers, doctors, etc. is being maintained, but the priority is in other areas. Studies in the agricultural fields are what the country needs.

Are you saying that we’re going to see a Cuba that’s more production-oriented and less service-oriented?

Rodolfo Alarcon: We’re creating a Cuba that won’t rely on imported food or importing things we can create right here in Cuba; and in that sense, the university has an important role.