HAITI: Sector was a disaster prior to quake

Before the devastating earthquake struck Haiti on 12 January, the country had no ministry dedicated to higher education, no funding agency for research, around 90% of its university professors did not possess a doctorate and three quarters of its universities operated without government accreditation.

"The situation in Haiti was disastrous before the quake hit," said George Haddad, Director of Unesco's Division of Higher Education, in an interview with University World News.

While the quake killed many in the university community, flattened scores of classrooms, ruined libraries and laboratories, the rebuilding of Haiti's universities, the theme of the recent two-day meeting in Montreal, remains a misnomer: Haiti's university system was yet to achieve the standards most nations would expect of their institutions of higher learning.

The interview took place at the meeting hosted by the French-speaking university association, Agence universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF). In its mobilization of aid for Haiti, AUF hopes to use Unesco's vast networks of expertise in higher education.

Jean-Vernet Henry, Rector of the Université d'État d'Haïti which enrols 25,000 students, knows his institution was wanting before the quake. Henry says his university was not receiving any public funds for research.

"There was no basic research funding. The Haitian government didn't even fund applied research."

He says his agriculture and veterinary faculty did have partners whose funds helped in its operation but the facility was devastated by the quake.

The root of Haiti's poor higher education sector began in the 19th century and continued into the mid-20th century, when the country's elite eschewed local efforts to build local universities and opted instead to train in Europe.

In the era of President Duvalier, university jobs became patronage positions and the religious sector controlled a large part of education.

Since the Duvalier overthrow in 1986, there has been an explosion in Haitian university enrolments by local students. But this has happened in a growing number of substandard institutions.

While the rebuilding efforts are aimed at restoring the country's university efforts, an AUF document on the state of its universities sets out some disturbing facts about the pre-quake Haitian university system:

* A university professor earns, on average, less than a bricklayer.
* Only 11% of Haiti's university teachers hold a doctorate.
* Only two professors in the entire country are qualified to oversee a doctoral thesis.
* More than 15,000 Haitians are enrolled in Dominican Republic universities.
* The government allocates only 0.4% of its budget to higher education.
* Of the 200 higher education institutions in Haiti only 47 can issue government-approved diplomas.

While many in Haiti see the value of universities in the rebuilding effort, there are some glimmers of hope the government, too, will start to value university education.

AUF Rector Bernard Cerquiglini met with René Préval in April 2009 and says the Haitian president was open to the changes his organisation was proposing, including setting up a ministry dedicated to higher education.

"He said this was all wonderful for higher education. Though nine months later our office was flattened."

AUF's Port au Prince offices have since reopened in a new location.

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