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

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: Azerbaijan

bakuA few weeks ago, we participated in the second workshop of a joint project between the countries of the Caucasus region. This time it was held in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku with the participation of the Georgian side.

During our two-day meeting, we got acquainted with the work of the centre, our Azerbaijani colleagues presented to us their recently launched website for online registration of applications and spoke about the current situation in the country’s higher education sector. In our opinion, the meeting was very friendly and productive. Colleagues from three countries (Azerbaijan, Georgia and the United Kingdom) had a chance to share their experiences, to ask questions, and to establish closer contacts for successful cooperation in the future. The meeting was conducted in Russian rather than English.

It should be noted that the main aim of this project is “to increase transparency and consistency in recognition practices across ENIC/NARIC network”. During this project, which is financed by European Commission together with UK NARIC, our intention is to promote better understanding of the structure of qualifications in the various countries of the world, to improve online data handling and storage systems, and to place more focus on learning outcomes while evaluating documents. Another important aspect is the development of cooperation between centres in general.

The process of recognition of foreign educational documents started in Azerbaijan in 2004, when the country began the process of integration with the European education system. Azerbaijan joined the Bologna process in 2005. Up until now, the main focus of the centre is still given to higher education. However, our colleagues have a strong desire to apply to the government for permission to deal with secondary and vocational education documents. As the centre is a structural unit of the Ministry of Education of Azerbaijan and its decisions are legally binding, it somewhat limits the ability and desire of employees to further develop their centre.

The majority of applications to the centre are from Azerbaijanis citizens, who received an education internationally. On their return to Azerbaijan everyone must go through the procedure of recognition in order to be eligible to get a job. Among the countries where students from Azerbaijan are studying the first place is taken by Russia, while the UK is in sixth place. Students are taught in 55 countries. The government also funds the training of its citizens abroad, with the sole condition that after training the graduate should sign employment contract with the state at least for three years. Fields of study are determined by the need of the market. The main ones are tourism (the most popular place for training in this area – Switzerland); humanities and management – the UK; medicine and technical professions – Germany; technology – Japan and Malaysia.
Azerbaijan is the largest country in the Transcaucasian region and is considered to be the first democratic republic in the Muslim world. After gaining independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country has endured a difficult period through the ethnic conflicts that affected the migration of various peoples.

It is interesting that in the country there are 9 out of 11 climate zones. Unfortunately we were not able to visit these other areas, spending all the time in Baku.

Baku is being actively developed and built. Certainly, the presence of natural resources (oil and gas) in the region contributes to the dynamic development of the city. Baku also hosted Eurovision song contest last year. For this purpose a new concert hall was built. On the road between the airport and the city you can see the huge construction site – this is preparation for the upcoming first European Olympic Games in 2015. In the city many of the old houses are being demolished, others are being renovated; many modern complexes are being built. The National Flag Place flagpole is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the tallest in the world. The most prominent building is a newly built three flame-shaped towers, a symbol of modern Baku. They were built by specially invited Japanese architects, as Baku is in a seismic zone. During night time illuminated towers simulate one hundred and ninety meter flames and gigantic national flag.

We came just before the national holiday Nowruz (Persian New Year), which is celebrated on the 21st of March. During this period, the population creates bonfires on the streets of the capital and kids and teenagers jump over fire. Also traditionally a lot of pastry and bakery is prepared. It is pleasant to see that the younger generation is being brought up following traditions and the spirit of the nation. In the old town a celebration was organised with folk music, singing and dancing in national dress. Two traditional characters entertained the audience and children. There were many school kids, and when one of the clowns invited a boy to dance, the latter without preparation but with great agility, began joining in the folk dance.

As always in this region you are struck by driving style. Each time you cross a road, you cannot be sure whether you will get to the opposite side in good health. Cars are driven in such way, so that it seems one big accident is about to happen in the whole city at once. Although it has to be said that during our whole stay we did not see one accident. Particularly impatient drivers just use the opposite lane.

An interesting point is that in 2011 the Ministry of Transport of Azerbaijan signed a contract with Manganese Bronze Holdings PLC for a total amount of $ 27 million. As a result, Baku taxi station was upgraded by London Taxi TX4 cars of purple colour. Availability of taxi meters takes away traditional bargaining and reduces disputes between passenger and driver. It was very unusual to see London cabs as far as 3,000 miles away from England.

It is amazing to see a large number of posters around city showing the current president and his father, who ran the country for ten years until 2003. Often on the streets you can also see the sayings of both leaders.

In the old city there are many souvenir shops, selling national products from daggers and scarves to dowry chests and handmade carpets of amazing quality.

It will be interesting to see what will become of Baku and the country in the next few years. Will the capital benefit further from the export of natural resources? Will the difficult relationship with neighbours be resolved, and what will be the future of ordinary citizens of Azerbaijan? And how will international higher education providers use the opportunities that the country has to offer?

Arseny Kruglov, March 2013

Reflections: Cambodia

I’ve recently had the opportunity to travel through Cambodia – a country still struggling to overcome a chaotic and tragic recent history (for a brief summary visit the BBC website), but now benefitting from substantial international aid and the positive energy of its youthful population (50% of the population are under 25 years old). A visitor to Cambodia, and Phnom Penh in particular, cannot help but notice the country’s emerging potential.

Cambodia currently faces a range of deep-seated problems. Revenue from natural resources has not fed back into the public purse. Political freedom is limited. As you travel from one village or town to the next, it strikes you that the grandest buildings tend to belong to one of the three main political parties.

The majority of the rural population subsist rather than prosper. Of the 14 million population, 4 million live on less than $US 1.25 per day (the US dollar being the de facto currency). Furthermore, 37% of Cambodian children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition.

In economic terms, the clothing manufacture sector predominates and accounts for 75%-80% of current exports. Silk is a traditional speciality. However, a visit to local silk farms illustrates one of the major problems facing Cambodia: it is uneconomic to produce silk through local silkworms, so raw silk is usually imported from China. The silkworms are mostly on show for tourists. Much of the revenue derived from the silk retail trade goes directly to international raw silk producers. This is despite Cambodia being the traditional home of ‘golden silk’, a unique and natural raw yellow silk.

Given these and other significant issues, it may seem odd to highlight the potential of the country. However, there are also many causes for optimism, not least the ordinary Cambodian people you meet.

The radically improved road network, largely the result of substantial Chinese aid in recent years, has ensured regional centres are more accessible and a railway network – funded by Australian aid – will further improve the current situation.

Despite an over-reliance upon international aid and clothing manufacture, the economic fortunes of the country are improving swiftly. Tourism is a substantial factor (Cambodia now welcomes more than 2.5 million tourists each year). National GDP grew by more than 6% per annum between 2010 and 2012.

Whilst Siem Reap is the most obvious illustration of the burgeoning tourist industry, Phnom Penh best highlights the changing dynamic in Cambodian society. A vibrant and energetic capital, it retains its French colonial heart, but a modern city is fast developing. As the wide range of high value cars travelling around the centre attest, a middle class with disposable income is emerging rapidly. The skyline is another barometer of wealth and Phnom Penh’s first skyscrapers are now nearing completion. Whilst no Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok, the current rate of change is nonetheless impressive.

A further interesting trend is emerging. English language is king.

Despite its origin as a French protectorate, there is phenomenal interest amongst the country’s young population in English language courses. Stores across Phnom Penh brim full of books to support both guided courses and self-taught learning.

Indeed, English language testing centres are opening across the city, with the IDP’s Australian Centre of Education being the first but now certainly not the only place to formally learn the language. A course / test of English at roughly $200 can seem prohibitively expensive in a country where the average monthly wage is $50, but demand is high.

There has been a similar growth in interest and participation in tertiary education. Despite being low in comparison to other countries in the region, World Bank statistics demonstrate that enrolment rates in university and higher vocational education have increased from 3.4% of the cohort in 2005 to 14.5% in 2011. With private sector institutions accounting for a substantial percentage of higher education enrolments, the rise in participation is again indicative of the increasing wealth of the population.

In summary, there are significant and deep-seated structural problems in Cambodia, but signs a stronger economy is developing and – with it – a real interest amongst the young population to better themselves through education.

Paul Norris, March 2013


Reflections: Trinidad

Maracas beach TrinidadIn November UK NARIC were invited to deliver two workshops on Evaluating International Qualifications and Educational Fraud for the Accreditation Council of Trinidad and Tobago (ACTT), the body responsible for quality assuring post-secondary and tertiary education on these Caribbean islands.

On the first day of our visit, we were invited to the ACTT’s offices to meet their team. This experience enabled us to find out how the organisation deals with their day-to-day work, how the team members gather information and what criteria they take into consideration while recognising overseas qualifications.  Not only was this visit informative and interesting, but the warm and friendly welcome we received made it very enjoyable.

The second and third days of our visit were very hectic as we delivered whole day sessions to large groups of delegates. The venues chosen by the ACTT were inspiring, with one day being held in the new National Academy for Performing Arts and the other at the top of a local hotel with a fantastic view over the coastline and city. The attention and interest shown by the delegates and the positive comments that we received made all of our preparation and effort worthwhile and gave us a feeling of fulfilment and satisfaction.

Trinidad and Tobago is a colourful nation due in part to its climate and also the cultural mix of people who have arrived on the islands throughout their history. Trinidad became a Spanish possession after it was reached by explorer Christopher Columbus in 1498. In 1775 it was captured by the British who negotiated an amicable treaty of rule with the Spanish; Trinidad became a British colony in 1802. In the following years, slaves from Africa were brought to the island to work on sugar plantations and after slavery was abolished by Britain, landowners imported thousands of indentured labourers from India, China and the Middle East. In 1889, Tobago was joined with Trinidad as an administrative ward. The islands achieved independence from Britain in 1962 (our visit happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of independence celebrations) and became the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in 1976.

Although the national language is English, we sometimes struggled to understand the Caribbean accent and dialect; once it had been explained, a particularly useful expression was ‘let’s lime’ which means ‘let’s hang out’!

We made use of our free time and did some ‘liming’ in the Royal Botanic Gardens which has hundreds of trees from all across the globe. The trees benefit from Trinidad’s two-season climate; it is warm all year round with a dry season lasting from December to June and a wet season from July to November. As we visited the country in late November, which was the end of the wet season, we were lucky to enjoy lots of sunshine on every day of our stay. The dry weather enabled us to have a walk around Queen’s Park Savannah; originally a sugar plantation it is now a large open park and, as traffic only flows around it in one direction, the world’s largest roundabout.

Trinidad is famed for its petroleum, natural gas production and its large quantity of natural asphalt while its sister island, Tobago, is famed for its beaches and diving opportunities. Nonetheless, Trinidad also has its beauty spots and on our final day we took a trip to Maracas Beach on the northern shore of the island. Its natural beauty and proximity to the island’s capital, Port of Spain, makes it a very popular weekend destination for locals. The warm, clear water, golden sand and relaxed atmosphere helped us to wind down after completing our busy schedule.

Our visit to Maracas wouldn’t have been complete without a truly Trinidadian lunch – Shark and Bake. This is a sandwich made of lightly battered and seasoned young-shark, wrapped in a light fried-bread or bake and filled with salad and tasty sauces.

Our thanks must go to the ACTT for inviting us to run their workshops and for showing us the island’s sights.

Monika Krzebietke and Elizabeth Evans, January 2013

Reflections: Armenia

The following blog provides a summary of our recent project meeting in Armenia and some reflections on an emerging country, by our regional specialist Arseny Kruglov.

We have recently completed a country visit to Armenia. The main purpose of our trip was to hold a workshop with our colleagues from ArmENIC within the framework of a joint Capacity Building project. The Centre is the main national point of contact for recognition of foreign qualifications and carries out a number of other functions including the promotion of the Bologna process in Armenia, dissemination of the Diploma Supplement, involvement in the development of the NQF and the NQF-EQF referencing. This meeting helped us to better understand the principles of the organisation, and issues that occur in their daily work. In addition, we gathered first-hand information about the system of education in the country and the direction of development of the sector. All the information gathered will be used for the next update of the International Comparisons database and in our day-to-day work.

In 2011, there were approximately 2000 foreign students in Armenia. The statistics show that the number of enquires completed by ArmENIC in 2011 has doubled since 2007. The most significant growth took place in the first few years of operation (2005-2008) and the number of enquiries has since remained stable. Interestingly, most of the enquiries in ArmENIC are related to Iranian documents. The reason is quite simple: having completed an education in Armenia and received an Armenian qualification, it is easier to get to Europe and America than with an Iranian one. The main reasons for this are more open policies towards Armenia and its participation in the Bologna process. The rest of applicants arrive after completing their education in Russia (13%), Georgia (7%), and because of the recent events in Syria and Lebanon, many ethnic Armenians are considering returning.

To provide some background, Armenia is one of the oldest countries in the world, once covering a wide geographical area, but for many centuries essentially lost its influence in the region. To typify this, the world-famous Mount Ararat (still piously revered by Armenians) now sits in modern-day Turkey.

Armenia was the first country to officially adopt Christianity in 301 AD as the state religion. That is why a lot of preserved monasteries, whose construction dates back to the period from the 6th to the 15th century, are located across the country.

It must be noted that all four ArmENIC employees, with inherent Armenian hospitality, gave us a very warm welcome in their cozy office.

Generally, Armenia is a very hospitable country with lots of attractions and its national colour; the best proof of this – quite a large number of tourists from all over the world. We had the opportunity to go on a one-day bus tour to the south of the country. In a group of 15 people there were Russians, ethnic Armenians (who came to visit their homeland from the U.S. and Australia), Italians and Poles. On the plane on the way back there were tourists groups from Belgium, Germany and France.

Armenia is a country of contrasts. The capital, Yerevan (one of the oldest cities in the world, 29 years older than Rome) already has shades and colours of the East. The central square, where all the government buildings are located, and a recently created pedestrian street with newly built apartment blocks in which no one lives, contrast with housing showing significant structural damage in which most people live.

The driving style is very different from that in the UK. There are plenty of vehicles on the streets (of various ages, sometimes you wonder how some of them are still functioning) and everyone constantly uses their horn for no apparent need, to the extent that all the sounds merge into a constant hum. However, after a couple of days you get used to it.

Minibuses are very popular amongst commuters. Buses are so overcrowded that sometimes it is difficult to get off them. Armenians themselves laugh about it: “These buses are like the mafia – it is difficult to get in, and even harder to get out.”

It is impossible to describe everything. Definitely it is necessary to visit a market, where you need to bargain, and where you can buy everything that grows in the country from aubergines (which lie on the ground just like the grass) to the apricots (the national symbol of Armenia). Talking of food, it is worth mentioning that the Caucasian cuisine is very diverse and delicious. In Armenia there are many national dishes, vegetables and herbs, fine wines and the famous cognac (the only beverage in the world, which has the right from French to be called as cognac, not brandy, due to its quality).

But the economic state of the country is a little disheartening; beautiful nature, a variety of landscapes and monuments contrast with poor housing, bad quality roads, abandoned factories, empty railway stations. Being in a blockade (for political reasons), the country survives; but the question is how? Where is the income from tourism business? Knowing Armenian patriotism and the size of Armenian diaspora across the world, we can assume that substantial financial assistance is being received, but what happens to it?

However, in spite of all the difficulties, the country is developing, moving forward. A good example is the fact that Armenia is currently hosting a Bologna secretariat, which gives the country’s education sector not only an additional burden, but also the potential benefits in the future.

Looking also at UK NARIC statistics, we can see that the amount of database views and member enquiries for Armenia have risen since last year. ArmENIC has a strong desire to promote their country through representation at international conferences, seminars and workshops; to play a greater role in supporting internationalisation of Armenian universities by enhancing mobility and attending international fairs. The visit to ArmENIC strengthened the cooperation between our centres and enabled the partners to identify several areas for further collaboration in order to support the growing potential of the Centre and position it more firmly as an important player in the Armenian national education system.

Arseny Kruglov, November 2012