US universities help rebuild higher education

Two years after suffering an earthquake that wreaked massive damage on universities, Haiti's higher education sector has benefited from international efforts that have revamped buildings and helped reconstruct curricula.

Higher education reforms have become a more serious priority in Haiti since the earthquake, which some estimates say killed 6,000 students and 200 professors.

The disaster was especially cruel to the country's fledgling private universities. Many were based in the hard-hit Pacot neighbourhood, and some were destroyed while classes were underway.

According to UNESCO figures, Haiti counts 200 higher education institutions, with an estimated 200,000 enrolled students. Yet the country's Ministry of Education and Vocational Training only accredits 50 of these as reputable institutions.

In a report released in January 2011, UNESCO in Action: Working to help Haiti, the organisation identified numerous problems in higher education including poor institutional governance.

The report said: "Although no formal assessment was made, the quality of higher education in Haiti is a real issue as many of the operating higher education institutions do not meet very basic standards related to governance, faculty, staffing, equipment etc."

Despite these difficulties, in the last year, American university officials from California to New York have led efforts to help rebuild and reform tertiary education in the troubled Caribbean country.

Through funding provided by the donor agency USAID, America's Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) is working with L'Ecole Supérieure d'Infotronique d'Haiti (ESIH) in the capital Port-au-Prince to develop a computer science education programme.

The funding also enables five ESIH students to travel to Virginia for undergraduate and graduate studies at Virginia Tech and Carnegie Mellon University.

Other USAID-funded initiatives include a partnership between the University of Florida and the State University of Haiti's agriculture and veterinary faculty, where the American university is helping its Haitian partner develop its agribusiness programme.

Meanwhile, City University of New York (CUNY) is assisting in creating a network consolidating three of the country's public universities: the Public University of South Cayes, Public University of North Cap-Haitien and Public University of Gonaïves in Artibonite.

Critically, these are all located outside Haiti's capital. Before the earthquake, 85% of Haiti's higher education institutions were in Port-au-Prince.

According to a note from the CUNY initiative, decentralising higher education in Haiti will promote greater access while strengthening regional workforces and economies. In this way, CUNY's plan mirrors the goal of a Haiti National Pact for Education, an action plan released by the government.

In addition, CUNY has established a 2011-12 academic year fellowship programme, giving six Haitian students from each of these regional universities a $500 stipend. This will help 18 fellows pay for tuition, books and any other expenses during an academic year.

Noting the practical nature of this scheme William Ebenstein, CUNY's dean for health and human services, and a member of the university's Haiti initiative leadership team, said: "There have been lots of projects regarding higher education in Haiti. Some have been more successful than others."

Meanwhile another international initiative, the University of the People, which is supported by the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) of former US President Bill Clinton, has launched a campaign to provide Haitian students with free online tertiary education courses.

In September 2010, the University of the People and CGI launched a three-year initiative to provide 250 Haitian undergraduate students with resources to complete their degrees in either business administration or computer science.

"This commitment is designed to elevate and empower the youth population in Haiti, many of whom currently reside in refugee camps and would not otherwise have the means to pursue higher education," said Shai Reshef, founder and president of the University of the People, in a statement.

"By bringing educational resources and encouraging students to study in their home country, we are not only helping individual project participants, but providing them with the vital skill set to rebuild their country while also raising the standards of higher education within Haiti."

* Additional reporting by Leah Germain.