Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

EDUCATION-CUBA: The Sharp Edge of Change

Ivet González

HAVANA, Feb 11 2011 (IPS) - Tougher entrance exams for higher education, to be applied in the next academic year in Cuba, are worrying families who see getting into university as a major achievement for their children.

“These young people have been raised with the idea that it is important to go to university,” Sandra Álvarez, the mother of 18-year-old Lisandra Carbó who wants to study medicine, told IPS.

In Álvarez’s view, pre-university students “have not been prepared (for the more rigorous entrance exams) and lack the basic skills.”

The Higher Education Ministry announced this year that in order to be accepted at universities and other institutions of higher learning — which are tuition-free in Cuba — students must earn a score of at least 60 out of 100 in each of three obligatory entrance exams: Spanish, mathematics and Cuban history, in a bid to improve standards in tertiary education.

There will be three examination sessions; the first will be held May 10-17. Candidates who do not pass, or were unable to sit the exams in May for justifiable reasons, will have another opportunity in July, and again in August.

Education officials stated publicly that the number of opportunities to sit the exams does not imply they will be any less rigorous. Entrance exams, used for decades to regulate entry into university, were re-introduced in the 2010-2011 academic year by Higher Education Minister Miguel Díaz-Canel, who was appointed in 2009.

Díaz-Canel told IPS “when entrance requirements were changed, and higher quality and more rigour were demanded in all processes in the universities, the population was momentarily taken by surprise.”

In his view, “people have now understood the reasons (for stricter requirements), because explanations were given.”

However, the complaints of some 50,000 aspirants to university places for the coming academic year, and their parents, arise from perceived failings at the earlier stages of public education in Cuba, and from its recent reforms.

Carbó attends the coeducational Francisco de Miranda School in Havana’s Lawton neighbourhood, but she used to go to a pre-university rural boarding school, like most of the island’s young people in the later years of secondary education, until such schools were phased out in 2009-2010.

“The change was a shock, and we don’t have a good foundation for studying,” the young woman told IPS.

According to Carbó, her education has suffered from delayed teaching of subject contents, bad habits among some teachers, and the shortage of teachers for pre-university classes, in spite of the fact that teacher numbers increased in 2009-2010, according to the National Statistics Office.

“The school is giving revision classes (to prepare for the entrance exams) and so on, but there are no teachers for some subjects,” said Álvarez. According to the editor of Cubaliteraria, a literary magazine, “these youngsters are the heirs of the ’emergency’ teachers,” trained in crash programmes to fill vacant teaching posts in schools.

What parents are constantly complaining about, especially in the current debate in the community and in trade union circles over the ruling Cuban Communist Party’s new economic policy, is the use of trainee teachers for classroom work, and the frequent use of programmed lessons on television, video and computers, in primary, secondary and pre-university education.

“Training young teachers as if they were running a marathon means some of the trainees may not be interested in the teaching profession, which demands vocation, commitment and dedication,” said Joaquín Heredia.

“Of course, some of them do want to teach, and really like it. When they are in front of a class, they give their all,” he said.

Heredia and his wife Lázara Wilson are battling for their daughter, Ileana, to be able to go to university. Their strategy is to cut back the family budget in order to pay for private tutors, who charge a little over a dollar per class in Havana.

The sacrifice may turn out to be fruitless, according to Álvarez, who has also paid as much as she can afford for private teachers. “Lots of parents hired private tutors for their kids, and they still didn’t get into university,” she said.

Meanwhile, students at the Institutos Preuniversitarios Vocacionales de Ciencias Exactas (IPVCEs) — elite schools specialising in science that select the brightest — and at the military secondary schools known as “Camilitos”, after Cuban revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos, have a high success rate for university admission.

Within academic circles, student performance is perceived to have improved since entrance exams were introduced, María Irene Balbín, vice chancellor of the Agricultural University of Havana, told IPS. “In the past, students did not have to get through entrance exams, but they would drop out in the first or second year because they lacked preparation and couldn’t cope,” she said.

“That was very inefficient. It had a negative economic effect on the country, because a student’s education costs a certain amount every year,” Balbín said. University degree courses like veterinary science, agricultural engineering and agronomy cost between 5,000 and 6,000 dollars per student per year for the state.

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