Sunday April 10th saw the annual meeting of the National Union of Teachers. Amidst British delegates complaining of misleading SATs, big class sizes and low pay (leading to a demand for a 10 percent or £3,000 price increase) – a teacher from Cuba spoke of the education system in her homeland, and offered a glimmer of hope to those who have all but given up on Labour’s mantra: ‘Education Education Education.’ So what have the Cuban government done so well?
As reported by People’s Weekly World, Lissette Rubio Mederos spoke fondly of the Cuban system and highlighted the progress that has been made from 1959 when 25 percent of Cubans were illiterate, compared to the 0.2 percent today and a countrywide education system that the United Nations ‘rates as one of the best in the world.’ Since the revolution, 99 percent of children now attend compulsory education to secondary level which is free, and in the process private schooling has been completely eradicated.
However it is not just primary and secondary schooling that Cuba has seemingly reinvented over the last 50 years, part of the success of the country’s education system comes from the progression of their higher and adult education – and its integration into the community. In 1959 there were just 3 universities in a country that is just 8,000 square miles smaller than England, yet today there are more than 45 with one located in each province. Additionally, Cuba is also home to several easy access education and degree schemes such as the University For All programme that is distributed via television, and the University for the Elderly – a community-based institution especially for OAPs.
A colleague of Mederos’s, Anna Fuertes, also identified that one of the places the Cuban education system seems to surpass others is in the way education is considered a responsibility of the community rather than the schools themselves. As a consequence, The Latin American School of Medicine can be seen as a pioneering institution for offering 1,500 free scholarships a year to students in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and North America; it must also be noted that this institution was established in 1998 whilst the notion of Open Content is only just beginning to be discussed in the UK in 2009.
The idea of free education and working beyond borders was reiterated in a paper written by Dr. Elvira Martin Sabhina entitled, Higher Education in Cuba in the 2000s: Past and Future. Despite being written in 2003, the closing statement still seems relevant and forward thinking, and goes some way to summing up where other education systems can learn from Cuba – Sabhina writes, “Cuba is willing to share its experience and to learn from others. The challenge is clearly defined. The answer awaits for the Latin American and Caribbean university community to join efforts and political will, minds and souls to reach those high expectations.”