Education from womb to tomb

Autumn 2005

Cuba’s University of the Third Age is a shining example to us all, writes Steve Ludlam

Since its foundation in 2000 by an alliance of the Cuban unions, pensioners and a teachers’ NGO, the growth of Cuba’s University of the Third Age (U3A) has been phenomenal. Its president, Professora Teresa Orosa Fraíz (Teresita) reports that since the first 42 students joined her first course in 2000, the U3A had registered around 30,000 students. This year alone 16,000 registered in 636 centres covering all 169 municipalities of the country. Next year there will be 20,000 new students. This May the U3A won Cuba’s most prestigious National Social Security Prize.

What explains this rapid progress? U3As elsewhere tend to be run exclusively by universities, or are private voluntary groups. Neither model has produced universal free access to higher education for third age citizens. Cuba has, by combining university status with voluntary activity. What have been the key elements?

Most obviously, Cuba’s revolution incorporates a strong commitment to realising human potential, and a belief that the revolution’s progress depends on a cultured and self-confident population. That population is ageing. Cubans can retire at 55 (women) and 60 (men). Life expectancy is 77. That is a lot of people with a lot of life left. By 2025, 25 percent of Cuba’s population is expected to be over 70.

Angel Luis Mena Kindelán (Mena), President of the retired workers movement, observes, ‘In the past the education ministries were responsible for children, youths and adults, but there was nothing for senior citizens. Now education starts in the womb and ends in the tomb!’

And the U3A is taken seriously as higher education, not as a pastime. When Havana University’s Rector inaugurated its Department of the Third Age, Teresita and her colleagues developed the basic curriculum. Taught over 42 weeks, it includes modules on study skills, human development, health education, general culture, social security and services, and managing free time. It is based on a theoretical perspective that emphasises that the third age offers not managed decline, but distinctive development possibilities.

Another crucial factor is the organising and mobilising role of the Cuban TUC’s (CTC) retired workers movement, which now has 312,000 members. Around seventy percent of U3A graduates come from its ranks. The CTC issued a ‘convocatoria’, a formal call to Cuban organisations to help the U3A, and allocated half a million pesos a year to U3A activities.

Mena explains that, as well as finding teachers, the unions secure teaching spaces, ‘Many institutions have lecture theatres, and they all have unions. So we go to the union leadership and arrange to borrow the lecture theatre. And we can go to the local authorities.’ The result, he proudly notes, is that the U3A has never had to turn away would-be students, anywhere in Cuba.

As provincial universities launched U3A Departments and local groups mushroomed, a national co-ordinating group was established, led by the founding organisations and backed by ministries, educational establishments, trade unions and other mass organisations. This network helped mobilise many of the U3A’s more than 7,000 teachers - all unpaid volunteers. More remarkably, many are also U3A graduates who have taken a specially developed university teaching diploma.

As Teresita concludes:

‘I think, in summary, that it’s a very particularly Cuban product: this ability to act very rapidly on a national level; to be able to do the teaching on a voluntary basis; in its objectives

“It’s not just aimed at one-off individual study and self-improvement, but at equipping people to continue to develop, to produce, interact, work, to continue feeling useful to society.

“The successful integration of so many totally diverse institutions, which is not easy, has been vital because our teaching modules have a wide variety of themes, so no specialist can teach all of them.”

The U3A’s effects have been manifold. The individual impact in terms of self-esteem and powers of communication has been inspiring, and recently-noticed beneficial health effects intriguing.

Further, as Rosita Fonseca Dorado of the CTC stresses, family relationships are transformed by the discovery that grandparents can continue to develop in their own right, and are not just a spare pair of hands passively awaiting their dotage! I met one blind graduate in her mid-70s, surrounded by admiring family and friends, and planning to do a continuation course in computing.

The incorporation of disabled students is another example: in Guantánamo there is now a class of 25 disabled students. Hundreds of continuation courses are running, all free, taught by volunteers, and supervised by university institutions. 5000 graduates, Mena says, have taken continuation computing courses alongside youngsters.

Social participation has blossomed. As Teresita explains, “I think one the greatest impacts up to now of this movement has been precisely continuing this socialisation of senior citizens ... the observable, fundamental result is that they are able to continue developing. In social activity, in all the ongoing activities of their classes, in the retired workers sections of their unions, in schools with children, and in their families.”

I encountered several examples. There is a large spin-off programme of local and oral histories. U3A groups take responsibility for supporting thousands of Venezuelans in Cuba for health treatment. They have established their own Miami Five solidarity committee. In Santi Spiritus I met a group running events for visiting international delegations, organising the city’s ‘grandparent circles’, and helping union social programmes. And of course the participation of graduates in all the organisation and teaching tasks of the U3A has been crucial to its expansion.

Success creates opportunities and challenges. The basic curriculum is under review, continuation courses are being implemented in every locality, and there is a drive to embed the U3A in every sub-municipal Popular Council. Ever wider access is on the agenda: for the disabled, for more old people’s homes, and prisons. Another challenge is why comparatively few men are becoming students. Is it because they tend to stay at work longer; is Cuba’s macho culture a factor? Scientific research on the U3A is emerging, both by established academics and by U3A graduates. U3A leaders sit on new government commissions on third age issues.

The Association of Cuban Pedagogues, a teacher’s NGO, now has a third age section. The idea has been floated of a Latin American U3A institution, to exchange expertise and develop new U3As. Cuba’s ‘exported’ literacy and health programmes are an inspiration. Lots still to do, but, being Cuba, an impressive willingness to make the effort.

Meanwhile, as Teresita told its 5th anniversary meeting, Cuba’s U3A is ‘contributing to the improvement of the social image of old age ... showing the way forward to the creation of a picture of a new type of third age citizen.’ Once again, Cuba has lit a bright beacon.

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