Cuban student tours UK

Spring 2003

By Simon Watson

Shortly before 20,000 students demonstrated for ‘Grants not Fees’ in London last year, Ettianet Diaz Estrabao, teaching student and Secretary for Culture in the Cuban Union of Students (the FEU) toured the UK as a guest of CSC.

She talked about free education in third world Cuba, and the ‘Battle of Ideas’ to raise Cubans cultural, educational and social level.

Indeed, the difference in attitudes towards education between wealthy Britain and third-world Cuba was stark. Education is free in Cuba, at all levels. Students get grants, a universally accepted high quality education with falling class sizes and a job at the end of it. There is optimism and confidence in the future. It became almost embarrassing talking about this in a situation where most British students have to work to support themselves, live in very low quality accommodation, and leave college thousands of pounds in debt to often face low paid jobs and uncertainty.

Ettianet spoke to over 500 people in 35 meetings with individuals and groups, including Chris Weavers, Vice-President for Education of NUS. Local radio and local and national newspapers covered her tour, which included over a dozen universities; school visits; meeting with trade unionists; many local CSC groups and even a reception with Mayor of Derby. The main topic was the Battle of Ideas.

The Battle of Ideas covers 70 programmes being undertaken throughout all aspect of Cuban life. The aim is to make Cuban society increasingly more just, equal and human in every area and dimension, and show that equality is not limited to opportunities, but also extends to possibilities. Some of it further strengthens areas like education, but many programmes address issues which confront Cuba as its own society changes, and rely on mobilising young people.

The side-effects on society of tourism are varied, but one of them is that it has been hard to attract young people into teaching in Havana. Class sizes were starting to rise, going against the priority of raising the quality of education. An emergency programme of primary school teacher training was introduced in five institutions. More than 5,500 young people between the ages of 16 and 17 enrolled for the ten month training course, after which they work in a primary school in their own community while simultaneously continuing their higher studies in one of 22 university programmes in the humanities. As of September 2000, no Cuban school had classes with more than 20 students, and many had 15 or less (some rural schools have one!).

In a similar way, intensive training courses for social workers have been introduced, to work with children, adolescents and the elderly and incorporate schools, teachers and the entire community in their work. 7,200 young people between the ages of 17 and 22 have been enrolled in intensive 10 month university courses, which then continue as distance education and in-service courses once they qualify. Over 1000 social workers have graduated from 4 schools across Cuba, and eventually there will be 35,000 – or one for every 300 inhabitants.

In May 2002, a third TV channel was launched, which is completely for educational purposes. It runs from 6.30am until late evening, and in the morning there are entertainment and educational programmes for primary school children (My TV to Grow). Later on there are programmes for middle school (My TV to Learn) and secondary school students (My TV to Know). Evenings have things like the discovery channel and programmes aimed university students. In primary and high schools there are TVs and videos in every classroom. In 1944 rural schools there is no electricity, so solar panels have been installed. These also help counteract the effect of the US blockade on teaching materials.

There are many other programmes too, such as training thousands of art instructors for visual arts, music, dance and theatre. Others include training for those (very few) who do not stay at school to complete their 9th grade education, tackling the link between low education and low culture leading to marginality and criminal activity. The introduction of IT into all aspects of education is developing apace, and 15,000 primary school teachers were given intensive courses in IT , so they could teaching the computer labs installed in every primary school in the country.

A final example (though there are more) is that of the university for all, through which distance learning courses are taught by television, broadcast to the entire country to enable the entire population with the opportunity for educational and cultural upgrading.

One of the things which came across in the different meetings was the difference in understanding of Cuba between those who had visited Cuba on a brigade or in solidarity, and those who had gone as tourists with little understanding of the revolution. Although there was general sympathy to Cuba from all those who had gone there, it was clear that people who had primarily seen Cuba from the viewpoint of a certain group of people in the tourist industry came away without understanding the depth and effect of the revolution. It is clear that there is still a struggle going on inside Cuba to counteract some of the negative social effects of tourism, and raising the level of culture and education in the Battle of Ideas is an important part of that struggle.

Ettianet was overwhelmingly well received as an eloquent advocate of Cuba by audiences on her tour, and good links were made with some colleges, and new people were attracted to local groups meetings. Thanks to the people helped organise meetings, many who had not been actively involved before.

CSC will be increasing its presence at NUS Conference, and if any students can help with this in April in Blackpool, please get in contact.

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