The Cuban government offers places to thousands of foreign students in its medical institutions.
What we want in the Latin American School of Medicine is that the students - become impregnated with the same doctrine in which our doctors are educated, with that total devotion to their noble future profession, for the doctor is like a shepherd, a priest, a missionary, a crusader of the people?s health and physical and mental well-being. - Fidel Castro
MORE people now know about Cuba's excellent public medical system, thanks to Michael Moore's SICKO. In the documentary, Moore takes a group of 9/11 volunteers to Cuba to receive treatment that they had been denied by the United States government.
In fact, the communist country has a unique, government-funded programme to train medical students from around the world.
According to Cuban embassy first secretary Florentino Batista, seven Malaysians joined the programme for the first time last year.
This year, a new batch of five students left for Cuba earlier this month under the medical scholarship programme which was set up in 1999.
In the beginning, the students were mostly from Cuba's Latin American neighbours.
"We have expanded the programme to include more countries in Africa and Asia. This is our contribution to training their human resources," says Batista.
There are currently 22,893 foreign students under the medical scholarship programme, including at the Latin American School of Medicine.
Besides training foreign students, the Cuban government has also set up medical faculties overseas, in Yemen, Venezuela, Timor Leste, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, Equatorial Guinea and Eritrea.
Medical students make up the largest number of university graduates, second only to teachers. Cuba has over 80,000 doctors.
According to Batista, the medical scholarship programme is entirely free as all costs are subsidised by the Cuban government.
This includes tuition fees, food and accommodation.
Under the programme, which spans six years, the students are sent to 14 different faculties of medicine in Cuba.
The first year is akin to pre-university. As the medium of instruction is Spanish, those who are not proficient in the language need to spend an additional 22 weeks to brush up on it. They then spend the rest of the year studying advanced Biology and Chemistry in Spanish before starting their medical studies.
Batista says Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the world after English, "if we discount Chinese which is very localised.
"We do not place students from one nationality or country in one institution as we want them to interact with those from other countries.
"After the pre-university year, foreign students join their Cuban counterparts on the degree programme."
He adds that all the degrees offered by Cuban medical institutions are accredited by the World Health Organisation. However, the Malaysian Medical Council (MMC) does not recognise Cuba's medical degrees.
Many would be surprised to find out that even students from the United States head for Cuba to study medicine.
"Although the scholarships are meant for students from poorer countries, we recognise that even in rich countries like the US, there are some who cannot afford to go to university," he says.
Tradition of higher education
One out of seven workers in Cuba is a university graduate, says Batista. Higher education is free for citizens, even up to PhD level, as it is regarded as a right, not a privilege.
To democratise higher education even further, the Cuban government has introduced a new initiative to have a university in each municipality.
"Over 14 different programmes are now offered at 300 municipal universities, with over 600,000 students enrolled," says Batista, adding that the aim is to bring universities closer to the community. However, these programmes are only available to Cuban citizens.
This year marks the 280th anniversary of Cuban higher education, which started with the establishment of the University of Havana in 1728.
For the 2006-2007 academic year, there were 30,777 foreign scholarship students in Cuba.
They came from 126 countries and 81% were enrolled in medical programmes.
The rest were doing courses in physical education and sports, the technical sciences, pedagogy and music, theatre, dance and visual art.