Upon first arriving at the University of Havana I was taken aback by the overall majesty of the school itself; the grand steps leading up to the bronze sculpture of the “alma mater”, the Grecian style columns of the buildings invoking thoughts of the Acropolis and educational centers of early civilization; the owl at the peak of a building symbolizing wisdom. The care and thought that went into these details of the buildings themselves show just how valued education is in Cuban society.
The value of education is not only evident in brick and mortar of the school but also I how the educational system functions. Listening to the guide describe the process education in Cuba, there were several key aspects of the system that stood out.
First, how a students education is financed specifically how the government covers tuition, books, and living expenses for the entirety of a student’s university education. A university educational system funded entirely by the government is far more than a “novel” idea; it is a fantastic idea. The greatest burden facing most students in my generation in the United States is the debilitating cost of higher education. Student’s graduate with a bachelor’s degree, they try and find a job and then begin the arduous process of repaying their student loans. Some secure employment that will allow them to pay off those loans in relatively short order; others, I would say most are unable to pay their loans back for decades and potentially never. Federal student loans are also non forgivable in bankruptcy. I cannot imagine the amount of relief I would feel if I knew that I didn’t have any student loans. This system also hurts the financial health of the government as a whole.
Students take government loans to pay for college, then they can’t pay back the student loans in a timely matter and the government is not repaid in a timely matter and the student’s financial welfare is in serious jeopardy. No one wins. Would it not be easier to have a system paid for by the government? This leads to the second point that stood out to me.
I realize a major problem with a government funded educational system is that depending on the amount of students going to college the government may go bankrupt. A way to resolve this dilemma and I think this is how Cuba does so is to limit the amount of people going to university. Listening to our guide, I got the impression that it is extremely difficult to score high enough on the entrance exams to go to a university, especially the University of Havana. It seemed to me a form of a merit-based system; those who score the highest on the exams go to the best universities and so on down the line. In controlling the amount of students going to college, the government has the ability to regulate the cost of education per student. Yet, in the U.S we are told from a young age that you have to go to college to succeed in life so everyone tries to get a college education as well they should but there is also a downside to this notion.
The U.S. is in desperate need of skilled vocational labor, which traditional universities do not train. Though not everyone goes to a major university in Cuba, those that don’t have the possibility to receive vocational training. This helps to insure a skilled labor base that helps balance out the jobs those going to a university are studying for. Also, it was interesting to learn that each student who attends a university has a job waiting for him or her after they graduate. This idea of guaranteed employment is unfortunately a laughable concept in the U.S.
The last thing that really stuck out to me regarding the educational system was the emphasis place on math and science. Placing the study of math and science above many other subjects I think has helped Cuba develop a healthcare system that in some respects surpasses our own along with a biotech industry that may very well be the best in the world along with agricultural development that others around the world are trying to adopt. I think this because if history has told us anything, the two most important study areas of every society is math and science. Math must be understood to be successful in the sciences. The sciences must be understood for a society to not only survive, but also adapt and succeed as the world changes.
Overall, I was extremely impressed at how the educational system in Cuba functions. Yet, the most inspiring aspect of their system is the value in which education is given and how important it is to the Cuban people. I got the sense that a university education is not a right but a privilege. A privilege that is respected by those who have it and are willing to strive to do the best they can with that privilege.