Once a valuable Spanish colony, Cuba is now one of the most popular cultural and tourist destinations in Latin America. After gaining independence in 1902, Cuba was a little piece of heaven for tourists up until the Cold War. During that period, many Cubans migrated to the US, since the two countries are separated only by 90 miles of water. Today, visitors to Cuba are captivated by the vibrancy and variety of both the cultural and natural attractions, from magnificent architecture to exuberant live music, and rugged mountains to paradisiacal white sand beaches. Those who choose to study in Cuba will find themselves in good company; the country is already home to approximately 22,700 international students.
The capital, Havana, was once the third largest city in the Americas and was named the “Key to the New World” in recognition of its importance within the European colonies. Once an important trading port, often attacked by pirates, Havana has many old forts, which give the city a certain medieval charm. The most famous is “El Morro Fortress”, which is a beautiful six-story building guarding the entrance to Havana Bay. Today the capital is mostly famous for promoting the arts, hosting numerous international arts and music festivals each year, including the Havana International Jazz Festival, International Havana Ballet Festival, Havana International Film Festival and more!
There are more than 60 universities in Cuba, all of them public. As in most countries, Cuban higher education is split into three stages – roughly corresponding to the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral system. The first stage usually lasts at least four years, but five or six years for subjects like medicine, which is one of the most popular specialties on the island. Universities in Cuba occupy a high priority for the government and Cuban people. The past decades have seen the country gain a global reputation for its commitment to investment in education, though in recent years national debt has prompted some cuts to the education budget.
A number of US universities and colleges offer opportunities for students to study in Cuba for part of their degree, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Burlington College and American University.
Five universities in Cuba feature in the QS University Rankings: Latin America 2016. These are:
The highest ranked among universities in Cuba, the Universidad de la Habana appears in 59th place in the QS World University Rankings: Latin America 2016, up from 83rd last year. The oldest university in Cuba, it was one of the first to be founded in the Americas, established in 1728, originally as a religious institution. The Universidad de la Habana has 16 faculties, offering programs in fields including natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. Around 60,000 students are currently enrolled at the Universidad de la Habana. Tuition fees for undergraduate courses are around US$28,200, with some full scholarships available for international students.
Located in the beautiful sea port of Santiago de Cuba, the Universidad de Oriente Santiago de Cuba was founded in 1947, making it the second higher education center established in Cuba. It has 11 faculties and three campuses, all situated in the city of Santiago de Cuba. The Universidad de Oriente offers courses in natural sciences, agriculture, social sciences and others. The motto of the university is “Science and Consciousness” (“Ciencia y Conciencia” in Spanish). It ranks joint 145th in the QS University Rankings: Latin America 2016.
Established in 1952, the Universidad Central Marta Abreu de Las Villas has two campuses. One is located in the heart of Cuba, in the city of Santa Clara. The other, more remote campus, is known as the “Universidad de Montaña” and is located in Topes de Collantes – a nature reserve park in the Escambray Mountains. The university has 13 faculties and about 4,000 students. The Universidad Central Marta Abreu de Las Villas offers programs at both undergraduate and postgraduate level in fields including law, psychology, humanities and sciences. Recently a bachelor degree in journalism was also established.
Ciudad Universitaria Jose Antonio Echeverria is Cuba’s highest ranked technical university. It was established in 1964 and offers undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral research degrees. The university is organized in seven faculties all within one campus, which is located in the capital Havana. The campus’ building is known for its interesting brutalist architecture. Ciudad Universitaria Jose Antonio Echeverria is ranked within the top 250 universities in Latin America.
The Universidad de Cienfuegos Carlos Rafael Rodríguez is located in the beautiful city of Cienfuegos, which is known as La Perla del Sur (The Pearl of the South). Those who choose to study in Cuba at this university have the opportunity to combine a good quality education with the beautiful tropical beaches found on the island’s southern coast. Founded in 1970, the Universidad de Cienfuegos Carlos Rafael Rodríguez has four faculties: Agrarian Sciences, Economic and Enterprise Sciences, Engineering, and Social Sciences and Humanities. It ranks within Latin America’s top 300 universities.
The largest of the islands in the Caribbean Sea, Cuba is located about 90 miles to the south of the coast of Florida, US. Its neighboring island nations include the Bahamas, Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Cuba may be relatively small in terms of geographical area, but it’s got a larger-than-life kind of national identity. The Caribbean region in general is known for its tropical climate, beautiful beaches, and laid-back lifestyle – and you’ll find all of these in Cuba.
Since Fidel Castro ceded authority to his brother Raul in 2006, life in Cuba has slowly been changing. If you look past the politics and clichés about this country, life in Cuba can be an amazing experience, with joyful, welcoming people and almost constant sunshine. Those who choose to study in Cuba will all have their own favorite aspects of this sunny Caribbean island – some come for the beaches, some for the music, and almost all will leave talking about the incredible local people they got to know. Whatever your interests, life in Cuba promises plenty to explore and enjoy.
Apart from Havana, other popular destinations in Cuba include Trinidad de Cuba and Valle de los Ingenios, both of which have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites due to their ancient palaces and colonial-style buildings, relics of the reign of the Spanish conquistadores. Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second largest city, is known to be the most typically “Caribbean” and is famed for its colorful annual carnival. Other perks that may be of interest to those choosing to study in Cuba are the relatively low tuition fees at universities in Cuba, and the fact that healthcare is universal and free.
Find out more about student life in Cuba’s major cities:
Capital city Havana (Habana in Spanish) is the Caribbean’s largest city and one of the most charming in the Latin American region. The city has a lot to offer for those who choose to study in Cuba, including friendly people, international art and music festivals and amazing nightlife and cuisine. Contemporary Havana can be described as three cities in one: Old Havana, Vedado (the central business district), and the newer suburban districts. It attracts over a million tourists annually and its historic center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.
Iconic images of the city include vintage US cars, revolutionary slogans and colorful murals, ration-shop queues and imposing colonial architecture, and of course Cuban cigars, Havana Club rum and Latino dancing. The city’s vibrant and dynamic cultural life means there’s always something to do or explore, with a wide variety of museums, palaces, public squares, avenues, churches, fortresses, art exhibitions and musical performances.
Havana is the home of one of the oldest universities in the Americas, and the highest ranked among universities in Cuba: the Universidad de la Habana. Founded in 1728, it retains a strong reputation among the leading institutions of higher learning in Latin America.
Santa Clara is located in the most central region of the country and is the fifth largest Cuban city by population. If you seek to have a full Cuban experience, then Santa Clara may be the right choice for you. Its famous Park Vidal (Parque Vidal in Spanish) has a long tradition of being a popular meeting place, especially for single people, and a venue for performances by the city’s philharmonic band. Dance center Colonia Española de Santa Clara offers more opportunities to enjoy Cuba’s famous dance and music traditions, and Santa Clara is also home to the mausoleum which houses the remains of famed revolutionary Che Guevara.
The Universidad Central Marta Abreu de Las Villas, located in Santa Clara, currently teaches about 35,000 students from 47 different countries. The university collaborates with institutions from Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Spain and many other countries all over the world.
While Santa Clara is about an hour’s drive from the coast, Santiago de Cuba offers more immediate opportunities to take advantage of the exotic Cuban beaches. The second largest city in Cuba, Santiago de Cuba is situated by the Caribbean Sea and is an important port. During the 18th and 19th centuries many French and British immigrants, arriving mostly from Haiti, came to Santiago de Cuba, which added to the city's eclectic cultural mix, adding to its existing Spanish and African influences. Santiago de Cuba is also home to a substantial number of people who adhere to Afro-Cuban religions like voodoo and santería, again largely due to immigration from neighboring Haiti.
Santiago de Cuba is among the most culturally vibrant cities in Cuba. Some of the country’s most popular musicians were born here, and have created the typical, country-like music of the city. Santiago de Cuba is also well known for its traditional dances and annual carnival, during which Cuban conga music is played in the streets.
The city is home to the Universidad de Oriente, which is the second highest-raked among universities in Cuba, and also one of the largest. It offers a wide range of specialties both for undergraduates and postgraduates.
Cienfuegos (from Spanish: a hundred fires) is often referred to as Perla del Sur (Pearl of the South). It has a population of 150,000 people and is located on the southern coast of Cuba. Its most famous attraction is without a doubt Castillo de Jagua, a fortress built for protection against the real pirates of the Caribbean.
In 2005, UNESCO added the Urban Historic Centre of Cienfuegos to the list of World Heritage Sites, as the best example of the 19th-century early Spanish Enlightenment implementation in urban planning. No other settlement in the Caribbean boasts such a unique cluster of neoclassical structures.
Cienfuegos may not be as big as capital Havana, but it certainly doesn’t lack in entertainment venues and attractions. The city has various museums, parks, a botanic garden and a dolphinarium. It is home to the Universidad de Cienfuegos Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, another of the five universities in Havana to be featured in the QS University Rankings: Latin America 2016.
Many of those choosing to study in Cuba come from other Latin American and Caribbean countries, some of which have government agreements in place to facilitate student mobility. Other countries have also recognized Cuba’s attractiveness as a higher education exchange partner; for example, South Africa’s Higher Education and Training Department recently signed an agreement to promote academic and student exchanges. Strained political relations with the US have meant that travel between the two countries hasn’t always been easy, but students and academics are among those exempt from restrictions. However, funding cuts meant that university enrolments have dropped dramatically over the past decade – so if you do want to study in Cuba, you may need to work a little harder to secure a place.
Teaching at universities in Cuba is in Spanish, so you’ll need to be proficient in the language. International students may be offered the chance to take preparatory or supplementary Spanish language classes.
To study in Cuba as an international student, you will need a student visa. To apply, contact the Cuban Consulate in your home country and request information, as requirements vary from one country to another. To enter Cuba you need a passport which is valid for at least six months from the date of entry. Three months before you arrive, you will be asked to supply your chosen university with: your full name, address, passport number, expiration date, date and place of birth, name of father and mother, planned residence time in Cuba, planned date of arrival in Cuba.
Tuition fees at universities in Cuba vary between US$20,000 and US$40,000 depending on the university and the course of study. The good news is that this is the tuition fee for the whole course, not just for one year. Most universities in Cuba offer attainment-based scholarships for high-achieving students, and sometimes these scholarships may cover your entire fees. For more information on tuition fees and scholarships contact representatives of the university you’re interested in.
While many students do choose to study in Cuba for their entire degree program, the country is also a popular choice for shorter periods of international study – either as part of a full degree, or just an additional course. Examples of dedicated programs for international students include a one-month printmaking course in Havana run by New York’s School of Visual Arts; a semester-long course in Cuban or Caribbean studies at the University of Havana offered via Academic Programs International (API); and a selection of Spanish-language programs of varying lengths and levels.