Education without an ideology is a waste, and Nigeria huge investment in public and private education seems to be a waste, because there is no ideology gluing the whole system together.
Cuba has succeeded to put together a heralded education system worldwide, regardless of the limited resources of the eleven million inhabitants Latin American Island, and decades of harsh United States embargo that crippled its economy.
Here are ten lessons Nigeria could learn from Cuba successful education system:
- A country with an ideology
The success of the Cuban Education system comes from a clear socialist ideology making education a fundamental human right, the foundation of human dignity and therefore an obligation for the state to provide for free to all.
A year after the Cuban revolution in 1959, Fidel Castro, the leader of the revolution went to New York at the United Nations Assembly to declare, “Cuba will be the first country of America which will be able to say it does not have one person who remains illiterate”. He promised to eradicate totally illiteracy, at a time when 40% of the country was still illiterate and 60% was semi-literate. Following the loudmouth declaration of intentions, the Cuban leaders followed up with the most ambitious anti-illiteracy campaign the world has ever witnessed in such a short period. The whole ideology was based on the famous Cuban philosopher José Marti’s idea to bring the “light” of culture and the “bread” of literacy to peasants and newly freed slaves. Fidel Castro companion, Che Guevara termed the ambitious education program a “battle against ignorance”.
A large part of the education policy was dedicated to the culture of the people, which means constant reminding about Cuban national values of hard honest work, respect for self and others, discipline, teamwork and sharing successes and hardships. The belief is that a man without direction will end up wherever the winds carry him, and a country without an ideology, will end up being a pile of selfishness without direction. Cuba therefore put culture at the center of its educational system.
Now, what is the unifying ideology behind the Nigerian education system? What are the national values and principles it promotes? How many Nigerian are aware of what the States and Federal government wants from them as citizens?
- The world most ambitious literacy campaign
The goal was 100% literacy in Cuba, but the country did not have the schools and the teachers for such an ambitious goal. The Revolutionary Cuban government barred the country with propaganda posters, TV, radio and newspaper call for “alfabetizadors”. An alfabetizador is anyone who could read and write who accept to volunteer to teach how to read and write to his or her illiterate neighbors or in remote rural areas. 817 literacy centers were opened in the first year, and 100,000 Cubans volunteered as alfabetizadors during the first year alone. The alfabetizadors were called the “literacy brigadistas”. They were given two weeks intensive training in ways and technics to teach how to read and write, but also how to adapt to rural life conditions while helping local communities take advantage of their new skills. They were armed with two textbooks – We Shall Read and We Shall Conquer – and a gas-powered lantern, so that literacy lessons could be given at night. Many of the enlisted alfabetizadors were high-school students.
Literacy is the foundation of any nation building, and the Nigerian activist Okwu Nwachinaemelu wrote “I might be wrong, but I aim to educate. … I don’t care if we run deficits to improve our education system, revamp health care & achieve 99% literacy. Our children will take of us.”
- One of the Highest Education budget per capita in the world
Cuba spends over 13% of its GDP in Education, and its direct public funding of education has been constantly over 10% during the last 60 years. In comparison the UK spends only 4% of central budget on education while the United States barely reach 2%. Nigeria is in the average of African countries, spending 5.72% of public funds on education.
Long before it became a trend in high performing countries in education, Cuban teachers, along its doctors, were at the top of the salary scale in the country.
It’s clear, that the most important infrastructure to develop in any country is the infrastructure of the mind. It should come first, because everything else depends on that infrastructure. All countries which have emerged as high performing in science, technology, engineering and commerce are those which had first develop their infrastructure of the mind, before anything else.
- Showcasing publicly results and celebrating milestones
A map of “illiteracy free zones” were regularly published on TV, radio, newspapers to show the progress of the literacy campaign. A year after the program has been started the illiteracy rate in Cuba dropped from 25% to 4%, and thousands of the “illiteracy fighters”, or alfabetizadors, marched triumphantly in Havana to celebrate the achievement.
Prior to the Cuban revolution in 1959, 25% of Cubans over the age of 15 years were found to be illiterate and 60% of Cubans were found to be semi-illiterate.
Cuba had achieved universal primary- and pre-school education by 1970 (45 years ahead of the UN’s 2015 deadline for its Millennium Development Goal).
- Start with what you have and aim for the best
The Cuban education revolution started with teachers which were unqualified teachers. They were thousands of volunteers hastily trained during two weeks and sent to literacy centers around the country to teach farmers and freed slaves how to read and write. All schools were suspended across the country in 1961, for almost a year, so that every qualified teacher could teach and co-ordinate the 100,000 alfabetizadors, half of whom were girls. It was the first time in recent history that a country has used a mass of unqualified teachers in such a coordinated way to build a world-class education system.
Today, in contrary, the vast majority of Cuba’s 150,000 teachers have a master’s level.
- Ideologically driven but focused in reality
Cuba in the years 1960s was an agricultural country but not many young people wanted to study agricultural engineering, but preferred to become doctors and lawyers. In other to discourage such tendencies, the government has set extremely high academic standards for uncritical topics like law, economy, finance, etc. reducing drastically the number of students that were admitted in those faculties.
In short, the Cuban revolution has made college and university education free, but the underpinning program had focused the courses on the country’s skill shortages in key areas like agricultural sciences, engineering, medicine, etc.
Also, in order to ground the teachers in the country’s realities, there was program set for academic staff to go out into local communities and get involved in their cultural activities.
- Schools designed for success and integration
Cuban classrooms are designed for maximum interaction between teachers and pupils. There is a rule of a strict maximum of 25 children per primary-school class, and 15 pupils per class in secondary schools.
Primary-school curriculum includes dance and gardening, lessons on health and hygiene, and, naturally, revolutionary history. Parents have the obligation to work closely with teachers as part of every child’s education and social development.
Regardless of social class, income, or location, education was free for all, the same as school meals and uniforms are free. Kids understand early that school, society and parents expect them to be the best, and discipline is key to achievement.
“Mobile teachers” are deployed to homes if children are unable to come to school because of sickness or disability, and before school and after school care programs are set to help kids from unprivileged families.
Cuba has developed an important network of micro-universities in order to face the huge demand for high education and accommodate students who can’t get admission into the 15 national universities. The micro-universities offer part-time and distance learning in all provinces, and open universities give free and popular classes on TV, and radios.
- Import content without losing the country culture and ideology
Cuba has opened its education system to the world, to take inspiration from best practices and exchange scholars, but at the condition that the foreign content does not imply changing Cuba culture or altering the ideological drive of the country. Cuba has developed world-class research centers in biotechnology, medicine, agriculture, military, without compromising the socialist stance of the country and its humanist values.
For Nigeria that is something important to learn from, as the current trend in the country educational system is to make Nigerian kids to speak and behave like British or American kids. “Import technology without altering local culture” is the approach that worked for Cuba.
- High level and long term commitment of country leaders
Commitment to universal literacy and high standard education had been baked into the social fabric of Cuba during the last 60 years. This happened because of a long-term commitment and active involvement of the Cuban revolution leaders into the education policies and execution. Fidel Castro was active in setting up the ideology and policies that guided the country educational system.
During a recent visit to South Africa, a Cuban delegation was asked what was the secret of Cuba success in education, health and military. The head of the delegation Dr Guevara Marsh replied that there was no secret, and if there were any secret it’s due to the fact that Cuba owned its resources, and invest them in health and education. She said she had visited a diamond mine in South Africa, and had asked how much money was generated by the diamond industry. Then she commented, “If all the money made in the industry was to go into private pockets, then obviously there would not be enough resources to fund whatever programs were needed in education and health. Cuba owned what it produced. All the benefits came back to the people. All its energy went into the education of the people”
Cuba has now one of the best education systems in the world, confirmed by international standardized tests and UNESCO reviews. Recently, countries like Venezuela and Bolivia had followed the model of Cuba to reach in short period universal literacy. Haiti, Nicaragua, Mozambique, Malawi, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand are taking note from the Cuban experience to smash illiteracy in their most vulnerable communities.
Nigeria as the most powerful African country could also benefit from Cuba example.