The Sharp Edge of Change
By 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
"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
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
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
"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
"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.