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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Thoughts on Cuban Education by Elvira Martín Sabina

Thoughts on Cuban Education by Elvira Martín Sabina
Translated by Mariana Ortega Breña
Elvira Martín Sabina is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Havana, director of the Center for Studies of the Improvement of Higher Education, and coordinator of the UNESCO Chair on University Teaching and Management. Mariana Ortega Breña is a freelance translator based in Canberra, Australia.

Cuba’s educational experience shows that underdeveloped countries can indeed achieve levels of success that nurture human rights and their sustainable development. An appraisal of this experience begins by citing the country’s precarious economic situation, the result of colonial and neocolonial domination, which was inevitably reflected in education in prerevolutionary Cuba. According to the 1953 census and other sources, only 55.6 percent of children between 6 and 14 years were attending primary school and only 16.5 percent of young people between 15 and 19 were enrolled at the secondary level. Out of a population of 5.8 million people, more than 1 million were illiterate. This was a particularly acute problem in the countryside, where illiteracy reached 41.7 percent of the population over age 10 and was higher among women. This does not include functional illiterates, which increased the rate to more than 50 percent. These figures reflect the strikingly insufficient reach of educational services and their quality at the time of the triumph of the revolution in 1959. How has it been possible for Cuban education to be currently among the most advanced in Latin America and the Caribbean?

My participation in educational programs and my research together lead me to propose two essential answers to this question (Martín, 2000). The first is the state’s unconditional commitment to the educational project, expressed in the political will that it has demonstrated for the past five decades. An example is the successful efforts to guarantee the financial resources necessary to avoid firing teachers or closing schools during the harsh economic crisis of the 1990s. The second is the widespread participation of the population in educational projects. In Cuba education is seen not merely as a right but as a responsibility of the entire population. These essential conditions have been complemented by an educational policy that is always being improved, a process in which correct decisions outweigh mistakes and one that is supported by scientific research and especially the active involvement of teachers and professors.

Two examples of citizen participation in educational programs, one from the beginning of the revolution and one that is current, are offered here. The National Literacy Campaign implemented in 1961 allowed the elimination of the social scourge of illiteracy; with the motto “The one who knows teaches the one who doesn’t,” a social force of more than 280,000 people, including students, teachers, manual laborers and other workers, and teachers volunteering from other parts of Latin America, was organized and over 700,000 people learned to read and write. This notable success achieved recognition by UNESCO. Many years later, in 2000, a process of decentralization of university institutions allowed the establishment of higher-education services in numerous areas and communities via what are called sedes universitarias or university centers, the responsibility for which rests with the traditional educational institutions.

Today 7 percent of the Cuban population has a university-level education, and the average level of education is ninth grade. The impact of the policy of “universalization” of higher education is a substantial increase in university enrollment, reaching a gross rate of 68 percent during the 2007–2008 academic year (Ministerio de Educación Superior, 2007–2008). The rates reported for other regions in 2005 (when Cuba had a rate of 61 percent) were 75 percent for North America and Western Europe, 57 percent for Central and Eastern Europe, 29 percent for Latin America and the Caribbean, 48 percent for Chile, 44 percent for Panama, 29 percent for Colombia, and 24 percent for Mexico (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, quoted in Global University Network for Innovation, 2008: 354, 355, 357). Some of the most important citizen commitments to the universalization of higher education include the participation of local professionals as university professors at the end of the regular working day, the collaboration of local governments, the use of middle-school facilities after classes are over, and the provision of human and material resources by local businesses. The achievements of Cuban education have been validated by, among others, two studies carried out by the Latin American Laboratory for Assessment of the Quality of Education (UNESCO/LLECE, 2002) during the 1998–2008 period.

I want to underscore the fact that the human right to education should cover all levels and include higher education, since it is imperative in the contemporary world that both men and women have access to the possibilities offered by humanity’s achievements in order to avoid risks to their survival and to exercise their rights as responsible citizens. Indeed, the 2008 Regional Conference on Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC/UNESCO, 2008) explicitly recognized that higher education is a human right and a public social good and that states have a fundamental duty to guarantee it. The Cuban teaching method called Yo sí puedo (Yes I Can) is an example of the potential of the education sector, with achievements that have been realized in 28 countries and 14 different languages and that in less than five years has permitted teaching 3.5 million illiterate people to read and write. This method has been recognized by UNESCO and other national and community organizations. Another example is Cuba’s support, since 1959, for 50,000 students from 129 different countries who have graduated from different levels of education in Cuba. It is encouraging that 30,000 youth from 123 nations are currently engaged in university studies in Cuba.

I would not trade the experiences that have enabled me to appreciate the way the people of a country realize their right to education. Cuba’s successful experiment with cooperation and integration in education allows us to assert that lifelong education is indeed possible.

REFERENCES
Global University Network for Innovation 2008 La educación superior en el mundo. Madrid, Barcelona, and Mexico City: Ediciones Mundi- Prensa.
Martín, Elvira 2000 “Algunas experiencias del sistema educacional cubano en la búsqueda de su pertinencia y calidad.” Paper presented at Twenty-seventh Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Miami.
Ministerio de Educación Superior 2007–2008 Boletín estadístico curso académico 2007–08. Havana. IESALC/UNESCO
2008 “Declaración de la Conferencia Regional sobre Educación Superior en América Latina y el Caribe 2008.” http://www.iesalc.org. UNESCO/LLECE
2002 Estudio cualitativo de escuelas con resultados destacables en siete países latinoamericanos. Santiago de Chile.

LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES, Issue 165, Vol. 36 No. 2, March 2009 135-137 DOI: 10.1177/0094582X09331817 © 2009 Latin American Perspectives