Will Cuba’s Higher Education Changes Provide Good Results?

by Nery Ferreira  (Progreso Semanal)

Students at the Cujae University in Havana.

HAVANA TIMES — In 2015, it was announced that several changes would be made to Higher Education in Cuba, which would be introduced in the current academic year (2016-2017).  These would contribute to “improving the quality, equality and relevance of Cuban education.”

Although, maybe this new set of measures also has to do with the country’s pressing need to train professionals, before it has to face several challenges, among them, an aging population and the steady increase of Cuban emigration in recent years, the majority of which are young, educated professionals (and because there isn’t any official data on this topic, we asked graduates where many of their classmates are currently living).

This urgency is reflected, for example, in the government’s decision to make entering university more flexible and to reduce how long it takes to get a degree.

Since last September, degrees in 23 subjects relating to Education, plus Tourism, Meteorology, Physical Culture and Sports, Socio-cultural Management, Industrial Design and Visual Communication, were reduced to four years (they used to be five). For those who enroll on a Curso por Encuentro* basis (Distance study mode), there are five years of study, one less than the six required beforehand.

“We hope that the vast majority of university degrees can be taught in four years.” This initiative “is an advantage for the country, which means that professionals which the country so desperately needs will be trained in less time, meanwhile, people will get a university degree in less time,” Rodolfo Alarcon noted when announcing these changes, when he was still the Higher Education Minister (he was replaced in July 2016).

This possibility has existed in Education’s methodological guidelines, but it was only applied in the 1980s to students who were studying teaching related degrees, and more recently in Mathematics degrees.

The former Minister clarifies that “this will be a slow process, where new programs will be drawn up,” and that the proposal doesn’t aim to reduce the severity of curricula, which still has to be studied, but to shift the focus onto degrees which will help solve Cuba’s problems without aiming for specialized education. According to him, if the graduate has a job which involves greater skills, they should seek this knowledge in postgraduate studies.

Among arguments supporting the reform, those of reducing government expenses, approaching international standards and that “there are more general subjects” are the ones that particularly stand out.

However, quite a few people are warning us of imminent dangers, like professor Roberto Mulet from the Physics Department at Havana University:

University students.  Photo: Yander Zamora/granma.cu

“In a country where grants for doctorates and master degrees don’t exist, where scientists’ wages are low, where many young people who graduate in natural sciences then emigrate as soon as they finish their social service, where many research centers are decapitalized in human resources, taking a measure of this kind is to kill national research once and for all,” he believes.

A forum visitor on the Juventud Técnica (Technical Youth) website, adds that “if curriculum restructuring means not teaching students certain subjects, as seems to be the case, it would be the first time since the 1961 reform that the Cuban education system considers making changes which involve graduates leaving university with less skills and knowledge.”

In Mulet’s words, “maybe they could prevent useless expenditure on people dropping out or failing by making university entrance exams slightly harder and thereby ensuring that only the best students go to University. Or, why not, by raising the bar on secondary education.”

A free pass to University

Another change – which is in effect as of September 2016 – entails distance learning students to take the traditional Spanish, Math and History entrance exams at the end of the first year.

“The application of the same requirements which are applied to full-time courses and Remote Learning programs has become not only a learning barrier, but also a psychological barrier, for those people who work and have not studied in years. There are even young people who aren’t being accepted into university and its infrastructure and human resources aren’t being properly exploited. Meanwhile, there is still a demand for professionals in towns and provincial cities,” Alarcon pointed out.

Nearly a half of all Cuban graduates have studied these kinds of courses, enrollment which has significantly gone downhill over time.  However, new programs are already changing this trend.

In the current academic year, there was a considerable increase in both modes of enrollment, where 55,804 places were handed out, a higher figure than those given out in the last five years, according to Maria Irene Balbin, the Communications director at the Ministry of Advanced Education.

An Internet user on Cubadebate, who said she was a Mathematics and Statistics teacher as part of the regular university program, raises the issue of students who have shown great deficiencies (“major gaps”) in this subject matter, even with entrance exams, and so the number of students dropping out in the first years of their studies is extremely high. “I hope that these new measures won’t further encourage this situation.” And the worst thing would be to carve out graduates without the necessary skills they need.

Alleviating the growing demand for educating teachers seems to be another reason behind the measures which have been put into effect.

Students at the University of Havana. Photo: Juan  Suarez

There are nearly 11,000 teachers per year not in the classroom for different reasons. Sometimes, the number of those who don’t carry on teaching in schools is greater than the number of those who graduate from teacher training centers, noted the Education Minister, Ena Elsa Velazquez. (And it’s extremely well-known that low wages are the main cause for this exodus… and this continues to go on with no action being taken to resolve this**).

To encourage people to study these subjects, the opportunity for basic secondary school graduates to study a part of or all of the pre-university course offered in higher education centers has also been approved, so that they can be accepted directly into teacher training schools, calling on the requirements belonging to their 12th grade final exams.

What’s more, as part of the new changes, teaching degree enrollment is now given to students who want it and have received gold, silver or bronze medals at national and provincial events. Study programs for pair subjects Maths-Physics, Biology-Chemistry, Biology-Geography, Labor education- IT have also been amended, so that students will only graduate with a profile in one of these subjects.

The creation of a new education level has also been announced, the so-called “Higher Education non University”, which is waiting to be approved by the government.

Once you’ve completed junior high education (9th grade), you will be able to access these programs which will last two years, two years and a half, or three, depending on the case, and will be focused on training people for specific job positions in the work world and “therefore tackle the phenomenon of over-skilled workers in the workplace,” according to sources at the Education Ministry.

A similar thing took place in the 1960s with specialty studies such as Chemical surveying, Accounting, Water technologies, Sugar Industrial Equipment, and basic level teachers.

And nothing without English

One of the most worrying measures for many is the requirement for students to prove their English language skills, as an “independent user”, before graduating from university.

According to Alarcon, “we have to fix this problem we have with Cuban professionals not being able to express themselves in today’s universal language. Universities will give students courses and access to IT platforms which will let them study independently. Some prefer to do this on their own, others might take the proficiency test, but they’ll have to prove their language skills. This measure will gradually be incorporated because we’ll have to first create the necessary conditions for this study.”

A forum visitor on Cubadebate believes that the solution lies in “teaching English at an early age in primary education and to resolve the deficit in English teachers, and then having a second language will come naturally.”

While others argue: “Knowing English is very relevant, but why do they ask for what they haven’t taught us in all these years, with the lack of teachers students have had. Now they want to demand this of us without having a foundation; or worse, that parents go out and pay for private tutors, and they’re super expensive.”
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(*) Anybody can enroll in the regular or distance education program, with no age limitations. Also full-time students can transfer to the distance education mode if they so wish.
(**) In December 2013, the Council of Ministers approved a policy directed at ensuring the necessary infrastructure and human resources teaching centers need, which studied raising teacher wages according to their performance, but they warned that this would only be introduced when the economic situation in the country permitted this.

One thought on “Will Cuba’s Higher Education Changes Provide Good Results?

  • There have long been cracks in the Cuban education system. Despite the propaganda hyping the “free” aspect, the quality of education in Cuba has been declining for some time and respect for Cuban professionals educated in Cuba as well.

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