HAVANA TIMES, July 29 – Cuba is experiencing a total transformation of its educational system. The reform measure that has been the best received by the public was the ending of the pre-university rural boarding schools program, whereby students lived in dormitories from Mondays to Fridays.
Youths who wanted to continue their studies at the university level were required to live in these educational centers for three years. Of course a couple of “pres” (pre-university senior high schools) existed in Havana for children with medical problems – or for those who had parents with good connections.
Nonetheless, if the end of those boarding schools is important for ordinary citizens, it’s much more decisive for the country to end a philosophy that for decades has promoted university education as the highest aspiration for youth.
The idea was to provide citizens academic training without regard to how many professionals could be absorbed into the economy. It didn’t matter; there would always be slots for graduates on the inflated payrolls of government enterprises.
One of the first effects of this policy was the training of a large number of mediocre professionals, people who worked their backs off to get through the university and then begin working alongside two other people on a job that required only one.
With the disappearance of Soviet assistance, the economy could no longer sustain itself. Wages fell and in joint-venture companies —where workers are paid in hard currency— foreigners hired only a small number of Cuban professionals, with these selected from among the most capable.
Given this situation, those who wanted to earn more had no other alternative than to shelve their university degrees and accept work as waiters, taxi drivers or porters, or to begin as some type of self-employed worker, in that way radically multiplying their income.
In the 1990s, I remember a young waitress at a Havana hotel greeting me very warmly. I didn’t recognize her until she told me that she was a journalist and had been at a presentation that I had delivered at the faculty of Communications in Havana.
She explained to me that due to her family situation, there was no other remedy than to look for a waitressing position. She admitted that she earned a good wage but that she felt very frustrated. “Imagine spending five years at the university and ending up here serving meals in a cafeteria.”
It was often argued that people would be thankful for being educated, even if they are not able to practice their profession. In theory this might sound nice, but reality demonstrates to us that in most cases the non-realization of students’ dreams leads to frustration.
Addressing the skilled workers shortage
For the economy, that policy also produced a disastrous effect: the loss of tradespeople. Things have gotten to such a point in my neighborhood it’s much easier to find a nuclear physician or a mathematical-cybernetics expert than a knife sharpener.
To stumble on a bricklayer, an electrician, a carpenter or a proficient painter is like winning the lottery. As was recounted by the historian of Havana, Eusebio Leal, his office had to come up with a group of very old bricklayers to be able to restore the dome of the Capitol Building.
As if this weren’t enough, in a basically agricultural economy, most of the professionals graduated in fields of study that have nothing to do with working the land.
Unquestionably, education needed radical change.
According to information obtained from the two ministries, enrollment this year for higher education will be much lower. On the other hand, there will be an expansion of training positions in trades such as agricultural technicians, skilled workers and specialists.
Vocational schools and polytechnic centers have opened and companies have made commitments to train young people. But the best news is that 96 percent of the slots have been filled, including a new enrollment of 20,000 students in agricultural specialties.
The pay issue is an important stimulus. A bricklayer, a mechanic or a carpenter can earn between 10 and 20 times more than a professional, especially if they are self-employed, where prices are negotiated directly with the client.
It also helps that society is much less “classist” and that different social sectors can mix without there being much tension. Among my friends is a university professor who is happily married to a cleaning employee, and an economist whose husband is a laborer.
In reality, the labor imbalance seems to have been introduced by official propaganda that overvalued the role of professionals in society. Finally, life has demonstrated that it is impossible to construct buildings relying only on architects.
Havana Times translation of the Spanish original authorized by BBC Mundo.