HAITI: Earthquake shatters already weak university system

Astride Auguste was late for an examination at Port-au-Prince's Quiskeya University on that fateful Tuesday, 12 January, when the earthquake, "the event" as Haitians have come to call it, struck. Auguste, an undergraduate in international affairs and management, was near the campus when she felt the earth shake beneath her. She bounced a few times and eventually regained her composure while a few miles away, many of her fellow students died after most of the buildings collapsed.

"I can't believe it," said a still visibly-shaken Auguste, days after the incident. "This is a nightmare. The year has been lost. I don't know what I am going to do now"

Yet for Auguste, and thousands of university students across this city, attending college was a dream for a better life, which in less than 45 seconds turned their world literally upside down.

As the Haitian government and the international community scramble to rescue, shelter and feed the homeless and the injured, higher education appears not to be part of the key concerns right now.

Quiskeya and scores of universities and colleges in the capital were destroyed during the earthquake. But none was affected more than a school which recently finished a US$2 million physical upgrade - the State University of Haiti which enrols a mere fraction of secondary school graduates.

At one time, Haiti's higher education system was considered among the best in the Caribbean and it graduated a coterie of doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers. But in recent years, amid political turmoil, the system has been lagging and private universities, such as Quiskeya, have mushroomed around the capital to serve students who cannot gain admission to the public colleges and professional schools.

"Higher education is one of the best investments Haiti can make right now - there is no greater bang for the buck for developing a country," said Conor Bohan, who runs a programme that provides merit-based scholarships for disadvantage Haitian secondary school leavers."Haiti needs to rebuild its educated class, the anchor of every stable economy and society." .

Until 1986, the state university, founded at the turn of the century, was the only university licenced to operatei and was controlled by whatever dictator was in power. But scores of colleges calling themselves universities have sprung up in the last 20 years as Haiti has chaotically edged towards democracy.

The most reputable are members of the international association of Francopohone universities (www.auf.org). There are eight Haitian members, including the state university, the Catholic university (Notre Dame d'Haiti - UNDH) and Quisqueya, the largest private university.

The exact number of students enrolled in these universities is difficult to know but general estimates suggest only 1% of Haitians between the ages of 18-24 enter tertiary education. That rate is the lowest in the hemisphere.

The State University is the largest but its administration is weak and the 11 faculties function quasi independently making for a fractured institution. With about 80% of university buildings destroyed, the government held a meeting last week to plan a reconstruction strategy.

Some of the ideas thrown around included prefabricated construction that could be put up in less than a week. The Haitian Education and Leadership Programme, or HELP, a local university scholarship institution, is trying to use this opportunity to create partnerships between accredited Haitian universities and universities abroad, according to Executive Director and founder Bohan.

"First we're looking for universities to accept students short-term while the local universities can rebuild. But also to establish long-term partnerships for technical support, professor and student exchanges, and advanced degree possibilities for top Haitian graduates."

Universities overseas that have expressed an interest include Dillard University - a historically black college in New Orleans whose students were displaced during Cyclone Katrina; Virginia Tech and Brown University, (also in the US); plus Canada's École Polytechnique de Montréal.

According to various educators, Haiti's public schools educate only 10% of the school-age population..Universal free, state-sponsored education is essential to Haiti's development and although it is in the constitution, it has been ignored by the government and donors alike.

"Eighty five percent of Haitians with a university degree have emigrated, the result of Duvalierist anti-intellectual repression and 20 years of political instability," Bohan said while reflecting on the country's recent history of dictatorship and chaos. "In short, Haiti's educated class has left and is not being replaced."

* The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last Monday that the quake had claimed many students among its victims while the ranks of academics had also been hit hard. Micha Gaillard, a university professor and political activist, was killed when the Palais de Justice, located near Haiti's Palais National, collapsed while he was attending a meeting about reforming Haiti's justice system.

Three of Haiti's major feminist thinkers also perished. Myriam Merlet, founder of the group Enfofamn, sought to raise awareness of women and their issues through the news media. The lawyer Magalie Marcelin helped establish Kay Fanm (Woman's House), which worked on domestic-violence issues and provided services and shelter to women who had been abused. Anne Marie Coriolan founded the group Solidarité Fanm Ayisyen (Solidarity with Haitian Women) which advocated for women's issues in the political and social realms.