By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba is cutting back its hallowed free education system and moving students into more practical careers to reduce costs and fill needs in its work force, recently released government statistics show.
Enrollment in the communist-run country's many and varied types of schools fell from 3 million students in 2008 to 2.2 million last year, a drop of 27 percent, according to the National Statistics Office.
The reductions include cuts in some of the most vaunted programs of the Cuban revolution, which from its beginning in 1959 emphasized the importance of education for all and incorporated ideas from Jose Marti, the intellectual father of the country.
Soon after succeeding his brother Fidel Castro in 2008, President Raul Castro warned of coming budget cuts in education and health care because he said the debt-laden country was virtually bankrupt.
"What we need to root out definitively is the irresponsible attitude of consuming, with nobody - or very few people - worrying about how much it costs the country to guarantee that and, above all, if it can really do so," Castro told the National Assembly in August 2008.
"Social expenditures should be in accordance with real possibilities, and that means cutting those expenditures it is possible to do without," he said.
Among the hardest hit were universities, where the number of students dropped almost 50 percent from 300,000 in 2008 to 156,000 in 2011 as admission standards were raised and liberal arts careers slashed.
Adult education, often criticized as too informal, open to cheating and a substitute for working, also fell dramatically.
Only 145,000 students were enrolled last year in university extension classes, a fraction of the 578,000 signed up in 2008 for mainly liberal arts courses.
Enrollment in adult education courses, designed to improve work skills, dropped from 373,000 in 2008 to 129,000 as the long-standing practice of paying state workers and farmers their full salaries to study during the day came to an end.
The state runs the entire education system for the country's 11.2 million citizens and sets the number of places available in each area of study based on what kind of skills it thinks Cuba needs.
These days that means more skilled workers and private farmers to boost stagnating production, and fewer professionals.
At the high school level, new emphasis is being put on sciences, pedagogy, agriculture and skilled trades at the expense of liberal arts.
The number of places for students in pre-university schools declined by some 50,000 or more than 20 percent since 2008, the report stated.
More students were channeled into the skilled trades, where slots jumped from 26,000 in 2008 to 74,000.
The data did not include provincial high schools run by the military.
"Opportunities are shrinking and competition increasing," said Sonya Perez, a single mother who is worried about her 12-year-old daughter's future. "I make my daughter study two hours every day and pay one of her teachers 30 pesos each week to tutor her."
A common complaint among parents is that families who can afford tutors increase their children's chances of obtaining a higher education and becoming professionals, undercutting the standard of equal educational opportunity enshrined in Cuba's constitution.
Marti, whose bust sits outside public buildings all across Cuba, championed the concept of combining study with work, which the revolutionary government embraced by putting free boarding schools in the countryside.
But with the revolution bumping up against budget realities, the number of boarding school students fell from 415,000 in 2008 to 170,000 last year
All of these changes can be jarring to Cubans who have taken a full, free education as a birthright.
"It used to be that a university education, in one form or another, was almost a sure thing," said Havana architect Alejandro Padron. "Now you have to struggle. I understand that it was impossible to maintain everyone studying, but I still want to see my son go to the university."
(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Tom Brown, Kieran Murray and Jackie Frank)