VLIR-UOS country strategy formulation process
On behalf of the Flemish HE institutes, VLIR-UOS manages a government funded programme directed at partnerships in the context of university cooperation for development. Currently, VLIR-UOS is in the process of formulating strategies for 20 partner countries. Country strategies are policy documents that will guide funding decisions of VLIR-UOS and allow for strategic impact based on programme coherence and contextual relevance. The Cuba strategy will be finalised by the end of 2011, and serve as a reference for a 2013-2018 strategic programme based on a 2012 call for proposals.
VLIR-UOS funds partnerships of willing academics (Flemish academics offer their time on a voluntary basis) on themes that are developmentally relevant and result from a shared interest. Interventions may be in the form of scholarships are projects at institutional or sub-institutional level. Capacity development aimed at furthering the ability of HE institutions to serve as actors in development, is at the centre of the VLIR-UOS programme.
In the past months, the Flemish areas of interest in working with Cuba have been captured (supply side). The planned identification mission, is meant to identify the needs (demand side) and identify (thematic, regional, institutional) the space and opportunities for both to match. Need identification will be done through visits to pre-selected HE institutions, authorities and other stakeholders. In addition, the hosting of a local seminar will allow for further inputs and discussions.
STRATEGIC NICHE FOR PROGRAMMING
The preparatory work consisted of a survey of Northern and Southern institutions and a desk study of various Cuban and international (policy) documents. Among other, The Ministry of Higher Education (MES) –international cooperation department (DCI), the Ministry of Foreign Trade and International Cooperation and investment (MINCEX) were contacted, as also a number of Cuban partner institutions. Also, VLIR-UOS could draw on the findings obtained during 2010 monitoring missions (Universidad 2010, IUC UCLV follow-up mission) on the occasion of which various stakeholders, including MINCEX and MES-DCI were visited. In addition, a “Country Day” was organised in the context of an UCLV steering committee meeting in Brussels in June 2011 during which country-level discussions were held with representatives of the Cuban Embassy in Brussels. Early September 2011, further contact on the country strategy identification process was made with the Cuban Embassy in Brussels, the Belgian Ambassador in Cuba, representatives of EU DEVCO – Latin America and of the EU delegation in Havana. For Cuba, Belgium and in particular VLIR-UOS is the lead agent in terms of aid for higher education.
All the information collected, including the results of a survey among academic stakeholders in Flanders resulted in a draft Cuba Fact Sheet, including thematic/geographical overviews of present VLIR-UOS cooperation as compared to national and HE priorities. This document, as well as further information on the preparatory work can be found on the Cuba webpage.
Cuba seminar in Belgium
Overall context and introduction
Some 45 participants representing a variety of different actors, attended the seminar. During the opening session and subsequent discussion, and among other, the following topics were covered:
The EU provides numerous opportunities for academic cooperation that are currently underutilised by Cuba, in part because at some stage this was discouraged by the Cuban authorities. Also, the need to involve Cuban institutes in a consortium makes a linkage to bilateral partnerships more difficult;
Experience to date has shown that partnerships with Cuban HE institutes are rewarding in developmental terms (motivation, dissemination through authorities, making a difference) provided prior investments in infrastructure and human resources are done. Also sustainability is a challenge in view of limited hard currency;
Joint Ph.D. programmes offer opportunities for academic return, language, access to information and communication facilities are limiting (transversal) factors.
Big national impact of VLIR-UOS in Cuba; VLIR-UOS most important external donor in Cuba as to higher education.
Issues taken up in the various discussions
During the group discussions the participants were asked to report on their experiences in working with Cuba and to point out opportunities for future cooperation.
Part of the discussions dealt with generic needs and opportunities for transversal support issues in the domains of English language, ICT in education, access to information etc. In general, the need to ensure that all clearances are obtained prior to the start of a project in Cuba was very much underlined. In this respect, a number of crosscutting concerns were put forward as the state of ICT facilities for hardware or software applications, administrative burdens (procurement, mobility), etc. Content wise, linkages to the bio-tech valley in Havana could be appealing to all.
In terms of content, the presented strategic framework of VLIR-UOS expertise in Cuba on the basis of current findings was largely endorsed. A variety of broad overarching multidisciplinary themes are covered in the Flemish cooperation with Cuba, but it is clear that Flanders could offer expertise that would seem to match the developmental needs of Cuba. A number of themes were put forward during the discussions, as there are: food security and agriculture (including rural development, plant & animal sciences), environment (incl. environmental management, drugs discovery/medicinal plants, biofuels & clean and efficient technologies, energy) cultural and human development (cultural heritage, language and culture, city conservation and planning, human settlements), health (collaborations with ITG; biomedics and statistics), and computer sciences and ICT in education.
As elsewhere, the choice to invest in already established institutes or rather start from the basics in less developed institutes is a fundamental one. The latter is increasingly difficult given the output pressure on young academics. This choice could be avoided by utilising former partner institutions and stronger academic centres as hubs to reach out to weaker ones. In regional terms, this could involve using UCLV and other institutions to reach out to potential new partners and in particular to the Eastern part of the country, thereby complying with the national policy.
In terms of intervention strategy, it was also expressed that a country strategy for Cuba should include a wide portfolio with a mix of interventions going from national theme-based initiatives, opportunities for classical departmental/thematic initiatives and potential for institutional university cooperation with a limited number of partners should also be investigated. While Flemish university colleges have more practical expertise to offer, calls should remain open to all actors.
As for the national initiatives, further elaboration on the earlier mentioned ‘hub/platform’ function would be needed so that a framework for national initiatives (hub/twining/networks) could be put in place. The suggestion was made that these would need to be limited to a number of clearly defined thematic lines. In terms of IUC approach, the focus should be on ‘making a difference’. This can more easily be done in regionally embedded and sub-top universities that host sufficient expertise to be academically rewarding.
The list of South/North of partner institutions with sufficient cooperation potential was also discussed during the group sessions and were largely endorsed by the group. The visit programme for the missions will need some further elaboration, but it is clear that a visit to the East and a number of medium-sized universities in the Central areas would be advisable. In this also the Cuban side would have an important say.
Dissemination to end users (private actors) deserves more attention but is easier to achieve in research institutes.
A close involvement of the Cuban authorities from the outset is important to ensure that administrative processes and authorisations are obtained and streamlined prior to commencing partnerships;
A hub approach with focus on specific thematic lines, and a renewed attention for the East of the country could form part of a possible strategy and deserve further exploration. Theme wise, the VLIR-UOS domains comply with national priorities;
Further interaction with other players (EU, Spanish cooperation) is required in order to ensure that capacity is built efficiently;
The matrix summarizing areas of interest of Flemish academics, is validated as was the list op partner institutions with strong cooperation potential;
A specific justification for university cooperation for development with Cuba will have to be provided for, given the fact that Cuba is not among the DGD partner countries;
Input will also be asked from the Belgian ambassador in Cuba, who has always been supporting university cooperation for development with Cuba, including facilitating linkages with other interested parties, such as firms, etc.