Iván García, 30 August 2017 — Since his wife died two years ago, Manuel hasn’t been eating properly. At night, he sits in front of an obsolete cathode ray tube television, and usually watches the news or the baseball while he drinks some fourth-rate rum bought from a convenience store.
His big old house with high ceilings needs rather more than just a lick of paint. In the living room, the worn-out furniture is long overdue for replacement. Books, periodicals and magazines overflow four shelves on the wall. In a corridor there are various cardboard boxes full of textbooks and bibliographies about electronics and computing.
He says he’s 65, but looks ten years older. His sparse beard needs a barber to do something with it, and his greasy hair urgently needs a wash with anti-dandruff shampoo. He has been unhappy since God took his wife away.
His uncared-for appearance makes him look like a tramp or an incurable alcoholic. But Manuel is a professor of electronics. He has a masters and a doctorate and has written a couple of specialised books, “which probably not many people have read”, Manuel says with a frank smile.
His miserable basic monthly salary of 740 Cuban pesos, equivalent to 30 dollars, doesn’t go very far. “I also get 80 pesos a month for my masters, 150 for the doctorate and 100 pesos extra for over 20 years’ service as a teacher. A thousand and seventy pesos in total, which is 43 Cuban convertible pesos at the present rate of exchange (roughly 43 USD). It’s enough to eat once a day, pay the electricity, water, gas and the phone. If I have anything left over, I buy books”.
With the same honesty he confesses, “They don’t pay me not even one convertible peso bonus. In this age of knowledge, with out-of date laboratories and shortages in the basic materials for study, university professors continue imparting knowledge to future generations out of vocational dedication more than anything.”
Manuel could offer private classes and get extra money. “Many of us do it, but I don’t. Because it’s prohibited and it’s unethical. A teacher giving an exam should not charge for passing his students. It’s a type of concealed fraud which they do in Cuba. Those classes benefit students with well-to-do parents. The most studious and capable are the ones who should graduate. University is for the best of them. In technical courses like telecommunications, those who don’t have ability quit their studies in the first or second year because the classes are difficult”.
In his opinion, “Cuban universities have lost their quality, but their faculty staff continue to be the best qualified in the national education system. It isn’t like that in primary or secondary schools where, with certain exceptions, teachers now are not very good. That becomes evident later; when students get to university, they have all sorts of weaknesses, some of them basic, like they don’t know how to spell”.
David, a student of industrial engineering, thinks “there are good, middling and bad teachers, just as in any area of work. But, when compared to pre-university, secondary and primary, the university professor has preserved his standing. The government should allocate a bigger budget to equipping the universities. It’s unforgivable that courses like computing or electronics have second generation computers and that the connection time to the internet is limited like the bread in your ration book.”
Diana, a philosophy graduate, has pleasant memories of her teachers. “They were very professional and very knowledgeable about the subjects they were teaching. But when they entered the classroom some of them made you sad, with their old clothes, and their worn-out shoes with broken soles”.
José Manuel, a working professor, believes “that higher education has lost a lot of its quality. What is happening is that in comparison with the dreadful state of teaching in the other educational levels, the universities see themselves as being on a different dimension. Thirty years ago, the University of Havana, the one in Santa Clara, and the old CUJAE, which is now the José Antonio Echevarría Tech., were among the best higher education institutions in Latin America. Now we are hardly in the top 250”.
Martí News talked to some university professors about the deterioration in the quality of higher education and what could be done to improve it. Rody, an algebra professor, got straight to the point:
“The reduction is due to the poor salaries. Every time there is a meeting with officials with the Ministry of Higher Education, they ask for more commitment and blah blah blah, but never a word about a pay increase or motivation for teaching staff. Apart from putting salaries up, they could incentivise the best professors by offering them personal grooming products and food as well as houses and cars. The government should provide subsidised holidays for outstanding teachers with accommodation in tourist resorts. They do it for the military, why can’t they do it for all teachers, not just those in university?”
Sara, a history teacher, thinks that “Cuban universities need autonomy, and not to be controlled by the government. Let educators have their correct place in society. We have to get away from this inverted pyramid in Cuba. Manual trades are important and necessary, but, everywhere in the world, people with university qualifications earn more than unskilled workers”.
Talking about autonomy, in 2012, the professor and academic Dimas Castellanos published an article in Diario de Cuba in which he ended up emphasising: “With the loss of its autonomy, the Cuban university ceased to be a strong point of civil society. In order for it to be that, the changes taking place in the economy have to be accompanied by changes in liberties and rights, among which university autonomy is an unavoidable necessity if it is to be relevant.
Carlos, an ex-professor of sociology, emphasises: “Because of miserable salaries and low social status, a lot of university professors are chasing scholarships and collaborations with overseas universities. And, if successful, definitely more than a few of them are deciding to emigrate. The Cuban academic world is poverty-stricken. The most talented professors, if they have their own opinions, and are not crushed by the system, may pay for it by being expelled from the centre, isolated and disparaged. There are more than enough examples. That was the case with the dissident Félix Bonne Carcassés, who died at the beginning of the year, a university professor with an excellent academic career. Or the recent case of the economist Omar Everleny Pérez, thrown out by the government from his job as an investigator”.
It’s not unusual in the island to find university professors driving taxis or renting their houses out to tourists and in that way adding a bit to their meagre finances. Others trawl the internet searching for scholarships or academic events outside the country to participate in. “Whichever doctorate, or simply taking part in a special panel outside the country, helps you earn a few dollars or euros which, when you get back, you can use to repair your house and buy food for your family”, explains an academic who spends half the year travelling to countries in different continents.
One possible way to update yourself, widen your knowledge and exchange experiences, especially following the re-establishment of relations between Cuba and the United States, would be if Cuban university professors could get internships or establish themselves as speakers at American universities.
It would be like winning first prize in the lottery.
Translated by GH