US-Cuban opening paves way for deeper academic links

The Obama administration was set to loosen restrictions on Friday regarding US travel to Cuba. This will open the door for more academic exchanges between the neighbouring countries and raise the possibility for more ambitious projects such as research partnerships and joint- or dual-degree programmes, international education experts say.

Whether institutions, students and scholars can develop deeper and more lasting ties will depend on what comes next. Only Congress can lift the US trade embargo, imposed on the communist country more than 50 years ago amid Cold War tensions. And, as the two countries prepare for normalisation talks – set to begin on Wednesday in Havana, Cuban President Raúl Castro's motives remain unclear to US negotiators.

Obama's surprise announcement last month that he wanted to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba is "a pretty big deal", says Victor Johnson, senior adviser on public policy for the non-profit NAFSA: Association of International Educators, which has long pushed to ease restrictions for US academics to travel to Cuba. "This opens up profound new opportunities."

Academic exchanges with Cuba were never banned outright by the US, but the federal government can regulate the transfer of assets – including money spent on travel – to countries it designates as hostile. General tourist travel to Cuba remains prohibited, but travel for academic purposes is one of 12 categories authorised by the government.

Until Friday, even authorised providers had to apply for an additional licence, determined on a case-by-case basis. Now, no further permission is necessary for authorised travellers.

It's too soon to know how academic exchanges will evolve, "but there is certainly continued excitement as these changes develop", says Monica Robertson, spokeswoman for the University Studies Abroad Consortium, based at the University of Nevada, Reno.

It offers three-week sessions to Cuba in January and in the summer. "Cuba as it is now will be transformed and observing and experiencing what that looks like will create interest for scholars and students of many disciplines," Robertson said.

Next week's talks mark the latest step in the Obama administration's effort to restore relations with Cuba as the island country prepares to make a historic political transition. Raúl Castro has said he intends to retire in 2018, which would bring to an end the Castro-led communist regime launched by his brother, Fidel, who took power in 1959.

The US severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, after Cuba signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union. After the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, President John F Kennedy restricted travel, and presidential administrations since then have tightened or loosened those restrictions.

In 2004 then-president George W Bush tightened rules by allowing only longer-term programmes in Cuba. The number of participants plummeted to 169, from 2,148 the previous year, according to data collected by the non-profit Institute of International Education, or IIE, based in New York.

Enrolments in credit-bearing programmes climbed slowly over the next several years, then soared nearly 300%, to 1,454 in one year after Obama in 2011 lifted the Bush administration restrictions. In 2012-13, the latest year for which IIE data are available, 1,633 US students earned college credits in Cuba.

Until 2013, the Cuban government required exit visas for citizens to leave the country. During the 2013-14 academic year just 69 Cuban students were enrolled in US institutions, down from a high of 4,487 in 1969-70, according to IIE data. In 1949-50, the first year for which IIE has published data, 749 Cubans were enrolled in US institutions.

Florida, located just 90 miles from Cuba and home to the highest concentration of Cuban-Americans in the US, stands to be most affected by the looser travel regulations. Obama's move pre-empts a 2006 Florida law that bars its public universities from using state funds, or from being reimbursed for funds granted by private organisations, to support travel to Cuba or other countries designated by the US as state sponsors of terrorism.

As relations thaw, Florida International University, or FIU, has been exploring avenues for collaboration. A 2013 feasibility study commissioned by the university suggested FIU might one day consider opening a campus in Cuba. But it recommends that the university begin by focusing on practical disciplines such as business administration, tourism and computer science, as a way to help Cuba boost its ailing economy.

"We think it (would be) a good first start," says Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. "What we want to do is build confidence from our side as well as on the Cuban side that the efforts we're trying to promote are academic and not necessarily driven by, to put it bluntly, a desire to overthrow the Cuban government or promote a political agenda."

A fact-finding trip to Cuba last year by the Institute of International Education convinced US organisers that Cuban academics are similarly eager to discuss options such as joint research, faculty exchange and curriculum development. IIE hopes this year to send a delegation of US university leaders to the island to discuss options with counterparts at about 10 of Cuba's nearly 50 universities.

Sustained relations will likely require time and trust. Patti McGill Peterson, an adviser on global initiatives for the American Council on Education, a Washington-based umbrella group for colleges and universities, says the test will be whether the two countries can develop joint- or dual-degree programmes, and delve into more politically sensitive topics such as academic freedom.

"The real question is going to be: can we move from sort of regulated and purposeful travel to genuine institutional engagement?" says McGill Peterson. "Just because we normalise relationships doesn't mean there aren't going to be certain constraints."

Academic exchanges have proven to be a powerful form of public diplomacy, says IIE president Allan Goodman. He says US relations with Cuba could follow a trajectory similar to that of Vietnam, another communist country with a state-controlled higher education system, a high literacy rate, and a thirst for education.

US State Department-sponsored educational exchanges quickly became popular when normalisation resumed in 1995 after a trade embargo of more than 20 years. Now the US government is supporting efforts to establish a non-profit university.

"It just took a while for all of this to get going but it did get going," says Goodman. "The next generation is really anxious to close a chapter on a period of history where there were tensions and strains and open a new chapter, and education is the way to do that."

How US officials approach talks with Cuba will be critical, says John McAuliff, executive director of the New York-based Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a non-profit that facilitates academic exchange between the US and Cuba. He says some US government-supported work in Cuba under the title of democracy programmes in recent years have created suspicion about the motives behind exchanges.

If those efforts "continue to be covert and interventionist, it will poison the well for more legitimate activity", he says. "If they are undertaken as we do in Vietnam and as the Europeans and Canadians do in Cuba, it will generate a broader collaborative spirit – and make resources available to US universities."