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Retaining Priority Despite Economic Crisis
By Dalia Acosta, IPS, 1 September 1998
HAVANA, Sep 1 (IPS) - Some 2.4 million people were back at school at some level in Cuba Tuesday, showing the nation's free and universal education policy standing up to the economic crisis wracking the nation for the last eight years.
Contrary to more apocalyptic forecasts in the early nineties, predicting the mass closure of schools, the Fidel Castro administration has kept education on its list of main priorities.
Since 1990, Cubans have been suffering power cuts, reduced urban transport services, food shortages and devaluation of the peso, but the classrooms have remained open, even when there have been no books.
"Sometimes the teacher is not what I would want for my child, but even so, I know he is going to school every day," said Mariela Cardenas, a 26 year old engineer with an eight-year-old son.
Although the quality of education is still a controversial issue in the Caribbean country, open and free access to the State monopolised system is considered a right not to be foregone by many people.
A survey made by the Gallup agency stated 72 percent of all those interviewed were "to a large extent" satisfied with the educational system, 17 percent were satisfied "to some extent" and only 8 percent were "little" or "not at all" happy.
Local analysts say maintaining the social achievements in sectors like education and public health has helped support Castro's popularity during the worst economic crisis in his near 40 years in power.
The authorities class these two sectors as conquests of the Cuban Revolution which must never be given up.
"There are few nations in the world this September 1 who can boast of the luxury of all their school age children attending class," stated official Communist Party daily 'Granma' Tuesday.
Official sources state some 2.4 million children and young people - around a fifth of the nation's 11 million people - are currently being educated in the 12,600 schools, 47 universities and 12 independent faculties in the 1998-1999 school year.
In Cuba there is one teacher for every 42 inhabitants. Schooling indices stand at 100 percent for primary, 95 percent in secondary and 98 percent in middle and higher education.
"There are material problems, but the essentials are guaranteed," said Education Minister Luis Ignacio Gomez, Monday.
The government has spent 1.51 billion pesos (on a par with dollars at the official exchange rate) on education this year, three percent up on the previous year.
Expenditure on this system represents 11 percent of the island's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and more than double the 630 million assigned to defence and internal order.
Gomez said there were 14 million notebooks, 21 million pencils and 22 million exercise books available for the new school year, but the paper shortage meant no new textbooks could be printed.
The Education Ministry will open 30,000 new places for scholarship students this year, and will offer 680,000 spaces in all day schools, where the pupils stay for lunch.
One of the highest priorities of the system is to maintain 750 rural schools open, where secondary, pre-university and technological school students balance their studies with work on the land.
This type of countryside school, which separates adolescents from their families, is obligatory for students studying three years of pre-university courses before opting for a university career.
As a rule, only students with health problems are accepted in urban pre-university establishments.
Gomez said this year the education authorities aimed to improve conditions at these schools, which are suffering from serious organisation and management problems as well as the shortage of materials.
He called for cooperation from parents in keeping the material differences currently seen in Cuban society as a result of the economic crisis out of the classroom.
Finally, Gomez announced the application of new working guidelines aiming to "strengthen teaching of values, discipline and citizen responsibility in school." (END/IPS/tra-so/da/sm/98)
c] 1998, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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