Reflections: Cuba


2015-03-28 03.12.17 croppedAt the famous Buena Vista Social Club in Havana, where audience participation in the evening’s entertainment is obligatory, the compere asked members of the audience their country of origin. When several US tourists identified themselves, they were mock-jeered, before the compere said “we like everyone here”. This friendly and welcoming attitude towards their traditional adversary was one I encountered on several occasions during my recent visit to Cuba – it certainly didn’t feel like US tourists need hide their nationality for fear of hostile reception.

The improving diplomatic relationship between Cuba and the USA has recently been in the news. In a moment of deep significance, Barack Obama and Raul Castro shook hands at the Summit of the Americas conference and, shortly afterwards, the USA announced it would be removing Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

In this respect, 2015 feels like a watershed moment for Cuba. Are we soon to see free movement between the two countries and a steady flow of American investment and tourists into Cuba? The general impression has been that, once American tourists are free to travel to Cuba, the unique dynamic in the country will be irrevocably altered. So, is 2015 the last chance to visit the ‘old’ Cuba?

My preconception that US citizens weren’t already travelling to Cuba was rapidly dispelled. One night at the Hotel Nacional indicated to me that American tourists are already present in large numbers and accepted.

In terms of travel options, my departure flight to Nassau nestled neatly alongside 5 flights to Miami (3 different airlines) that afternoon. So the transport links are already established and, if the current rapprochement continues, will doubtless proliferate.

In reality, the watershed moment appears to have passed. Raul Castro’s assumption of power in 2006 has led to a sustained series of cautious economic reforms, aimed at decentralisation of decision-making, de-collectivisation, wider use of market prices and expansion of self-employment.

Raul Castro has repeatedly indicated that the current reforms take place within the scope of socialism, but the revolutionary slogans in public areas and on government buildings (e.g. ‘Hasta la victoria siempre’) now feel like vestiges of a fading era. The iconic 50s-era cars prevalent across Havana are now, as often as not, in prime condition and catering for tourists. There were a few examples of battered old cars, clinging onto survival, but these were as likely to be Ladas as they were Chevrolets. The picture changed outside of Havana; however, in general, cars were noticeably healthier than I’d been led to expect.

Cubans can now buy and sell houses and cars, and travel abroad. They can surf the internet, albeit not cheaply. According to the Economist in 2013, farmers can sell almost half their output to the highest bidder, rather than 100% to the state. In the Vinales tobacco growing region, my experience was that cigar making farmers were allowed to retain 10% of their produce for sales to other locals or to tourists. In either case, this has made a substantial difference and the flow of CUC (‘convertible’ pesos, the tourist currency established on a par with the US dollar) into local economies is making a discernible impact upon general living standards. Homestays, for instance, boasted impressive TVs and furniture, although facades continued to crumble, perhaps deliberately to avoid drawing attention to new money.

CUCs are the easiest method for Cubans to supplement their set salaries. The reforms are therefore leading toward the slow and gradual rebirth of the middle class, with restaurants, guesthouses, shops and farmers all becoming small businesses and earning good money from tourism. Income inequality may well become an issue, but unlikely to the extent that made Cuba ripe for revolution in the 1950s.

2015-03-22 02.00.42 croppedThe transitional nature of current Cuban society is perhaps possible to illustrate with reference to clothing. Uniforms – both at schools and for government workers – remain standard issue, and school children still wear the red neckerchiefs characteristic of a communist state. But people are finding ways to express their individualism. For instance, women in governmental jobs (e.g. airport security) seem to compete with each other to see who can wear the most outrageous pairs of tights.

And as you walk around Havana, a noticeable number of locals wear T-Shirts featuring the Union Jack or images of London. “Why?” I asked the tour guide. “It’s a metaphor”, came the reply. “They are expressing a preference for a different way of life, without being overtly subversive by wearing an American-themed shirt. Or maybe it’s a nice design and uses the same colours as the Cuban flag – you decide.”

It is possible to see ‘old’ Cuba, but it’s already disappearing. Time will tell whether the current reform process proceeds after Raul Castro steps down but, for now, it looks as though the pace of change will quicken by the year.

Paul Norris, April 2015


Student mobility to increase employability and integration in the workplace


The International Projects team at UK NARIC recently participated alongside other international stakeholders in higher education, in an EU-funded study visit* to Poitiers, France on how student mobility increases employability and integration in the work place. Student mobility is widely accepted as a social and economic benefit whereby students gain valuable new social skills and learning approaches that make them more adaptable in the work place.

The visit focussed on aspects of the ‘Mobility Scoreboard’[1] recently developed in response to a call by Members States to remove obstacles to mobility such as:

  1. Information and guidance about mobility opportunities;
  2. Portability of student aid;
  3. Knowledge of foreign languages;
  4. Recognition of studies abroad (use of ECTS and Diploma Supplement); and
  5. Support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The study visit explored some of these obstacles in the different education systems, discussing at depth the use of key mobility and recognition tools such as Erasmus / Erasmus +, Europass and the European Credit Transfer system for facilitating mobility. A visit to the Université de La Rochelle provided the group with information about the university’s internationalisation strategy, helping to facilitate study periods abroad for students and researchers. The strategy focuses on the ‘professionalisation’ of the university’s curriculum to teach students skills relevant for employment within their chosen programme such as languages, IT and business skills, developing over 150 partnerships with universities in Europe, the Asia-Pacific and the Americas, and helping students fund study periods abroad through university grants or funds raised by the community of La Rochelle.

For the International Projects team at UK NARIC, participation in the study visit facilitated a deeper understanding of the obstacles and best practices in student mobility and recognition across Europe. By establishing networks and building partnerships with participants from the study visit, we hope to work on future projects to ease the recognition for student mobility within Europe and internationally.

*Disclaimer: The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of the publisher and the European Commission is not liable for any use that may be made of the information.

[1] European Commission – IP/14/9   10/01/2014.



Reflections: Morocco


Morocco Hassan II Mosque detail“Play it again Sam”

Although never said these words are probably the most famous quote associated with Casablanca; however the city offers so much more than the backdrop to the famous 1942 film.

A former French colonial post Casablanca is a busy, bustling, modern city that hasn’t bowed to pressure and change to meet the needs of the sun-loving tourist.   The city is the most Westernised in Morocco but still retains an Islamic heart.  Highlights for a tourist include the King Hassan II Mosque and Casa’s Medina.

The purpose of the visit was to attend the British Council’s Bringing the Learning Home seminar on international partnerships and developing skills for employment.  UK NARIC has previously had very little involvement in this area but it quickly became apparent that there is a significant strategic role for the UK’s national agency to play alongside the British Council.

International skills and education partnerships exist for a number of reasons; to develop and share best practice (including QA, curriculum development, delivery and assessment), to generate additional income, to improve student mobility and for education providers to learn from each other.  Each individual partnership is unique and outcomes vary accordingly.  Some programmes may have a micro-impact where the main benefit is experienced by the students only; others might have a macro-impact with the institution changes its behaviour as a result of the partnership; some partnerships have even had a national-impact where the partnership findings have resulted in a change to education or skills policy.

Key to the success of partnerships is an in depth understanding by each partner of the educational systems involved and an appreciation of where the partnership outcomes will fit into the education and skills frameworks.  This is where UK NARIC can and do help.  The data contained UK NARIC’s online databases and the findings of our benchmarking work can help ensure that partners are better equipped to succeed.

But what of Casablanca and Morocco?  It is always difficult to judge a country from one city and a city from a four day visit; however, some traits did become clear.

Although not the capital of the country, Casablanca is a very lively and busy place.  Industry and commerce are everywhere.  On most streets in the centre of the city there are vendors adding colour and atmosphere.  The markets in the medinas are an experience not to be passed up; they are a delight to each of the senses!

There is the constant buzz of transport accompanied by a symphony of horns, hooters, bells and back-firing engines.  Getting around the city in the red taxis is not for the faint hearted, but it does add to the overall excitement.

Morocco Hassan II MosqueThere are oases of calm.   The King Hassan II Mosque, set on an Atlantic headland, appears a million miles away from the bustle of the city centre.  A thirty minute stroll back into the city also takes you past the excellent La Sqala restaurant and ever popular Rick’s Cafe.

Returning to partnerships; it was evident from the conference that there are many opportunities available for UK education providers in Morocco; and it is equally evident that they are interested in partnering with UK providers.  Morocco’s education system is based on the French Napoleonic system and is similar to other systems in North Africa.

Secondary School

Morocco was a former French protectorate, so the education system is modelled on the French education system

Secondary education is supervised by the Ministry of Education.

Upon completion of secondary school, students get the Baccalauréat, this is the secondary school award that gives access to higher education in Morocco and it might be suitable for entry into overseas institutions (it is all down to institutional discretion).

Vocational Education

Technical and vocational courses are available at secondary school level where students are awarded the Baccalaureat Technique.  At the post-school level vocational courses are usually two years; the highest technical award is a Brevet de Technicien Supérieur.

Higher Education

Higher education is offered by universities and Grandes Ecoles and is under the supervision of the Ministère de l´Enseignement Supérieur (Ministry of Higher Education).

The awards from recognised HE institutions are comparable to standards of the reciprocal UK HE awards.

In short, although not closely linked to the UK’s system Moroccan awards are broadly comparable to the standard of UK awards.

There are a lot of opportunities in Morocco especially for those interested in partnerships and TNE.


Reflections: Libya


LibyaIn September 2013, UK NARIC was given the opportunity to revisit Libya, a country in transition following the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011.

UK NARIC first visited Libya in 2012 to find out more about the Libyan education system. A year later, we were invited to the Workshop on the National Qualifications Framework: Towards Strengthening Confidence in Libyan Education and Training System held in Tripoli on 7th September. The conference brought together all key stakeholders and intended beneficiaries of the proposed framework, from government ministries to university deans and school heads with the aim of introducing the concept of a comprehensive framework and the benefits it could bring to the Libyan education system. The concept is not an entirely new one in Libya: having first been proposed in 2009. Whether a reflection of the on-going transition in Libya or more broadly of the increasing understanding and implementation of NQFs internationally, discussions this year have been met with far greater support.

Many of the officials we met with had benefitted from the government’s national scholarship scheme, which funds approximately 95% of the Libyan students enrolled in international universities. Having undertaken PhDs at a wide range of UK universities, they are keen to see what lessons they can incorporate both from UK education, in strengthening the Libyan system, and in developing robust and efficient evaluation procedures for international qualifications.

Outside of the conference, we were fortunate enough to be taken to visit Leptis Magna, a place once interestingly referred to as ‘Rome by the Sea’[1]. The remnants of the Roman Empire are evident and remarkably well-preserved there but having climbed to the top of the Roman theatre, with stunning views of the Mediterranean, we couldn’t help but feel sad that such a beautiful place remains for the most part unseen, with the FCO advising against all but essential travel to Tripoli and coastal towns: happily, we felt welcome and safe at all times.

Perhaps the highlight of our trip was an unscheduled tour of Gaddafi’s compound which our driver took us to en route to the airport. Only by driving around the largely destroyed complex can you get some picture of the power Gaddafi had held for over four decades. It was interesting, though sad, to see that amongst the dozens of burnt out cars, collapsed buildings, abandoned check-points, and the ruins of his former residence, several families have set up home. The ruins that still stand in the heart of the capital serve as a reminder of the past, amid on-going efforts to build a New Libya.


[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/activityandadventure/8167751/Leptis-Magna-Libya-Rome-by-the-sea.html


Reflections: Bosnia and Herzegovina


Mostar (2)In September UK NARIC visited Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) to deliver a capacity building workshop for the ENICs in the region of the Former Yugoslavia.

Our workshop was hosted by the Centre for Information and Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education (the CIP). The representatives of Croatian and Serbian Centres also attended the event.  This was the last of the series of four capacity building workshops prepared and delivered jointly by UK and Croatian NARICs with support from the European Commission. Over the last two years the centres met in the UK, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina with the aim of sharing good practices and promoting fair recognition in the region of Former Yugoslavia.

With a population of only around four million people, Bosnia and Herzegovina is highly ethnically diverse, being home to Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats. This diversity accounts for the rich culture with a unique mix of Eastern and Western influences. Crossing the historical Old Bridge of Mostar over the fast-flowing Neretva river is almost like opening the gates from the West to the East with mosques dominating the right bank and churches abundant on the left bank.

Unfortunately, the civil war that broke out in BiH in the early 90s showed that diversity may also lead to destruction. Mostar suffered greatly during the war with many of its historical buildings and bridges destroyed by bombings. Luckily, several large-scale restoration projects have managed to return its pre-war beauty and charm to the historical centre of Mostar, which has recently entered the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

In turn, the locals quickly revived the century-old tradition of diving into the Neretva River from the newly-restored Old Bridge. The competition takes place in the summer so unfortunately we did not get to  witness the event. Watching divers jump into ice-cold waters of Neretva from the 25-meter bridge must be quite an experience, no surprise the competition gathers thousands of viewers!

While the narrow cobble-stoned streets in the Old Bridge area are happily bustling with tourists, venturing a bit further out from the city centre is a slightly sombre experience. We were deeply moved by the cemeteries of war victims and the numerous deserted buildings still covered in marks from bomb shells.

In addition to its rich culture, Bosnia and Herzegovina also guarantees fantastic weather with very warm summers and mild winters. We visited the country in early autumn – apparently one of the best times to visit, as the summer heat might be a bit too much! This time of the year is also perfect for sampling delicious local fruit and vegetables. The supermarkets in BiH definitely do not need an “organic” shelf, as local organic produce can be bought in many street markets scattered all around town. Meat- and cheese-lovers would also not be disappointed…

Locals are also known for their love of coffee – apparently BiH citizens drink the most coffee per capita of all the former Yugoslav republics. But don’t expect a large mug of Americano, instead ask for a traditional coffee. It is very similar to Turkish coffee and might even be served with a bite of the local version of Turkish delight.

Mostar lies in a valley surrounded by magnificent mountains. Unfortunately the tight schedule did not allow us to venture outside the city and explore the beautiful countryside. But we certainly left the country with the hope to return and to continue our work in this region.

Tatsiana Zahorskaya, October 2013


Reflections: Namibia


Church NamibiaUK NARIC recently travelled to the Namibian capital, Windhoek, to deliver six workshops on different aspects of international education. Our host, the Namibian Qualification Authority (NQA), made our visit very informative and enjoyable.

Over three days of training we had the opportunity not only to meet the NQA team and discuss their questions on international qualifications, but also to learn about the Namibian education system and how it has changed over the last few decades.

Making the most out of our free time, we explored the city of Windhoek and as the centre of the Namibian capital is quite small, we were able to get to all major places of interest on foot.

Our first stop was Christuskirche, a 100 year old Lutheran church prominently situated on the hill overlooking the city. This stunning historical landmark is probably the city’s most recognisable landmark. It was designed by a German architect at the beginning of the 20th century and was proclaimed a national monument on the 29th November 1974.

Just around the corner from the German church there is another interesting tourist attraction, the National Museum of Namibia. The museum, although quite small, has very interesting display galleries that cover rock art, the history of the liberation struggle and the social and cultural history of Namibia. Between the church and the museum is a giant, modern structure which, in time, will become the city’s new National Museum with space for exhibitions and conferences.

Namibia has a wide variety of wildlife and we were able to experience a game drive on a ranch to the north of Windhoek. The game drive was hosted on an eco-resort which provides a safe home for wildlife and is guarded from poachers. We were lucky enough to see many wild animals close up including rhinos, giraffes, warthogs, baboons and even two huge crocodiles!

On the final evening of our visit, thanks to the hospitality of our hosts, we explored Katutura, a township which in the Oshiwambo language means “the place where we don’t want to live” and, as its name suggests, looks nothing like downtown Windhoek. Katutura has a few spots that are definitely worth visiting; one of them is the local open-air market which offers a great selection of grilled and traditionally seasoned meats and local foods such as mopani worms and kaapana. Another must-visit is the craft village where traditional handmade goods, such as jewellery and pots can be purchased.

After a short trip around Katutura we were taken to dinner in a traditional restaurant called “Xvarma”. We spent a very pleasant evening in the company of our colleagues from the NQA who kindly described different types of dishes and shared with us interesting facts about their country and its culture.

During this short trip, we learnt that Namibia is a fascinating country with lots to offer.  Its name comes from the Namib Desert which is considered to be the oldest desert in the world. In fact, about 80% of Namibia’s terrain consists of desert; it is no wonder that the first thing that drew our attention upon our arrival was the arid landscape.  At the time of our visit, the country had not seen a drop of rain for over eight months!

After a long struggle for independence from German and then South African rule, Namibia has succeeded in rebuilding its economy.  Tourism, agriculture, mining and manufacturing are the most prominent economic sectors.

Although Namibia is one of the most sparsely inhabited countries in the world, it has a very culturally and ethnically diverse population. There are more than 14 different native groups speaking 26 languages. English is the official language however Afrikaans, German and Oshiwambo are widely spoken.

The education system, based on the Anglo-American model, is well developed which makes the country a good market for international student recruitment.

Monika Krzebietke, September 2013


Reflections: Georgia


In May, the final meeting of the Capacity Building project for the Caucasus was held, involving representatives of the United Kingdom, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. It was organised by our Georgian colleagues and held in the office of the National Centre for Educational Quality Enhancement (NCEQE) in Tbilisi.

The purpose of this meeting was not only to become familiar with the functions, policies and procedures of the Georgian centre, but also to provide the necessary support and to increase further cooperation between the organisations involved in this project. The director of the NCEQE, Ms Elene Jibladze, emphasised that the objectives of the meeting were to summarise the outcomes of the project between the UK and the countries of the Caucasus region and to expand the cooperation between the centres. She also noted the importance of cooperation with colleagues from the UK for further development of the Georgian centre, as well as the participation of representatives from other centres of the Caucasus region. The project presents an opportunity not only to strengthen communication, but also to develop a unified system of recognition for educational programmes across the region.

During the workshop, participants noted the invaluable benefits of this project and outlined the possibilities for future collaboration. UK NARIC, as organisers, summarised the results of the work for each centre and identified priority areas for further development.

Major changes have occurred in the Georgian education sector since the year 2000.

Institutional accreditation was launched in 2004. Before that time, only private institutions, which began to grow in number from 1991 onwards, had to go through the accreditation procedure. Between 2005 and 2010, institutions had to be licensed followed by accreditation to be fully recognised. The NCEQE was created in 2010, and it is the legal successor of the National Centre for Educational Accreditation. In that same year, mandatory licensing and institutional accreditation were replaced by an authorisation procedure. Standards of authorisation consist of three components: human resources, material resources and educational resources, which are measured every five years by NCEQE.

The Georgian National Qualifications Framework was also introduced in 2010. It consists of eight levels in line with the European Qualifications Framework. Basic education is at the first level, completed general secondary education is at level three, and the last three levels relate to the main higher education qualifications. Compulsory studies are until year 9, but the majority of pupils stay at school up until year 12. Bachelor and Master’s programmes were officially introduced in 2003, totally replacing specialist programmes from Soviet period.

Georgia is one of the states in the Caucasus region that gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, the country has experienced a series of political and military conflicts. At present, the situation is more or less stabilised, and a slow recovery of the relationship with its key neighbour – Russia, both at the political and economic level, is occurring. During his presidency, the current leader of Georgia; Mikheil Saakashvili, has managed within the space of a few years, to almost completely eliminate corruption in the country where the practice flourished for decades. Now, attempts to bribe a police officer were they to stop your car for instance, would be pointless. Local people have certainly appreciated both this and likewise the simplification and acceleration of various administrative procedures, which used to take months to complete.

However, the economic situation of the local population remains very difficult. On the streets there are many poor people begging. As there is only a small industrial sector, there is a corresponding lack of employment opportunities and people are finding employment where they can. In the centre of the city for example, all parking spaces are supervised by a ‘traffic marshal’, a person who helps you to park and looks after your car. You are expected to remunerate the worker before you leave. It would be seem ideal for Georgia to become a major tourist destination since it has so much to offer: the nature and climate, exceptional cuisine and the wine… However, the Georgians may not yet be willing to accept that.

The capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, was founded in the 5th century and is an important transit point for international energy and trade projects. The city certainly has its own colour and characteristic details. On the peripheral streets, mostly just beyond the centre of the city, lots of small shops offer products to suit every taste from fruits and vegetables to clothes. These shops are located mostly in the apartments of the seller, windows or doors of which face the street. There is also a large number of bakeries and take-away points, where different national pastries and quick meals are being prepared and sold. The famous pie with cheese – hachapuri, the so-called ‘Georgian pizza’, can be enjoyed straight from the oven.

From conversations with locals, it became clear that the infrastructure of the city has dramatically improved in recent times: new roads and new buildings have been constructed; some of the old ones have been renovated. This surge of activity after years of stagnation has been well received, but unfortunately did not last long. Now, for various reasons the development has halted again. Testament to this, there remains a large number of old buildings in the city that need major repair work or complete demolition due to unsuitability for living. For instance, most conspicuous in the centre of city, is not the new presidential palace and the monumental building of the Trinity Cathedral but the fact that it is surrounded by the houses that are almost falling apart.

The local people however, are wonderfully welcoming and friendly. Most Georgians are religious and respectfully adhere to the Orthodox faith and church. Passing the church, many cross themselves, both old and young people.

Georgians are very musical people. Live bands play at many restaurants and the guests themselves quite frequently get involved and sing national songs. To appreciate it fully, it is necessary to listen to the manner in which Georgians sing. The national music is not very familiar to European ears, but it is nonetheless simply fascinating and it can be listened to for hours. It is usually men who sing and do so without any advance preparation, dividing into polyphony.

We also had a chance to visit the old capital of Georgia – Mtskheta, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, located at the confluence of the Aragvi and Kura rivers. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In Mtskheta the main interest is Svetitskhoveli Cathedral which had been the focal church in Georgia for a millennium until the new main cathedral was built in Tbilisi. It contains Christian relics from different periods. Opposite the city, across the river and on a mountain, one of the oldest churches in Georgia is located. Founded in the year 545 this remote church is currently a male monastery. From there you can admire the beautiful view of the city as well as the contrast in the colours of the two rivers.

To sum up our project in the Caucasus, whilst the countries remain diverse, there is plenty of potential for further development across the region. It would be nice to witness a more active participation of these countries in the global education market, and likewise to see international higher education providers using the opportunities that the region has to offer. Staff at all three centres strongly advocate the development and promotion of education and academic mobility. All have made substantial legislative changes and are ready to cooperate with global partners. We look forward to engaging more frequently with our counterparts on the global stage, wishing them every success and will continue to support their efforts to collaborate more fully with international partners.

 

Arseny Kruglov, July 2013