Friday, April 23, 2010

In Haiti, Colleges Struggle to Get on Their Feet

Students listen to a professor in an outdoor religion class at the University of Haiti in downtown Port-au-Prince, March 23, 2010.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — On a recent weekday afternoon at the University of Haiti, students huddled under a large tree while a professor lectured over a megaphone, his voice booming over the rumble of generators and squeals of homeless children at play.

None of the students will get credit for attending this outdoor religion lesson, as the vast majority of Haiti's 25,000 university students have been shut out of class since the Jan. 12 earthquake toppled about 90 per cent of the school buildings.

"There is no hope for this year, so our only hope is that our government will find a plan for next year," said Jeff Lefevre, a communications student.

"We hear a lot of speeches about tents and food, but not about higher education. It's not what anybody is thinking about."

It has been more than three months since the 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed nine of the state university's 13 campuses, and the country's largest institution of higher learning is still looking for tents and space to offer classes outdoors.

Some universities have reached out to schools in the United States, such as Florida International University, to form partnerships and seek help. FIU has worked for months with the University of Haiti to assess its needs.

Still, officials at both public and private universities in Haiti say that with food and shelter straining resources in a nation wracked with problems, higher learning is low on the list of priorities.

The quake served to unmask an already crippled education system where even university presidents lack doctorate degrees and students complained they had to offer their professors sex to graduate. So as educators scramble to count the losses, some experts say that the devastation will serve as the opportunity to create a higher education system from scratch, or risk forever becoming a leaderless nation dependent on foreign aid.

"Higher education in Haiti was a mess prior to the earthquake," said Louis Herns Marcelin, a University of Miami anthropologist who is the chancellor of Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development (INURED), a research and higher education organization in Port-au-Prince. "Over the years of institutional degradation, no regulation, no standards, it became 'whatever.' Whatever happens.

"The earthquake unveiled a disaster that was already happening."

An INURED study showed 80 per cent of Haiti's 159 universities were in the quake-ravaged capital of Port-au-Prince. Of the 32 they surveyed, 28 were destroyed.

Anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 students died.

Marcelin said the state university needs $2.5 million immediately just to get temporary structures up, but the issue is not on the government — the U.S. or Haiti's — agenda.

"There has been no concrete message telling us what they are going to do," said Gorchemy Jean Baptiste, 25, a pharmacy major at the toppled medical school. "We are ready to go anywhere to study and come back and help our country. Right now we are not in class and instead sleeping under sheets under plain view."

Opening schools and institutions of higher education in preparation for the new school year is among Haiti's priorities, the government said in a needs assessment report presented to the March 31 international donors conference at the United Nations.

Although it did not distinguish between lower and higher education, the report says more than 1,300 education institutions collapsed as a result of the quake.

The government estimates that it will cost $915 million to relaunch Haiti's education system over the next 12 months, and $3.5 billion to build an education system over the next decade.

A Ministry of Education official acknowledged that the emphasis has been on lower education, because of an urgent quest to get children off the street. The government is worried that the international community's solution will be to offer scholarships to Haiti's gifted university students, who will leave the country and not return.

A plan to relocate and centralize the school's various divisions on a field location outside Port-au-Prince is still in the planning stages, officials said.

"The state university has big problems because 90 per cent of our buildings are collapsed," said rector Jean Vernet Henry. "Our big priority is finding money, funding, financial resources to buy prefabricated structures to begin courses."

He said at least half the university's student body has left the capital, so he is eager to begin virtual learning programs.

"This could become a catastrophe," he said. "We need to get students reintegrated into society and have a sense of normalcy, or there could be massive strike and rioting by students."

In fact, many students were saved by the quake because they were out protesting the day the quake toppled their buildings.

The rector contacted FIU, which hopes to help the university.

"The country is on its knees, and we are not going to turn our backs on them," FIU President Mark Rosenberg said after meeting with Henry. "He was very specific: He needs instruction materials, development of a disaster management degree and to quickly put together courses using intellectual resources here, at the University of Miami and France. We will find a way to make that happen."

Last month, FIU signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Haiti, agreeing to explore ways to develop educational programs in a variety of fields. FIU is considering tuition waivers and will help the university draft a strategic plan for rebuilding.

At least one private university is not waiting for outside help. Groupe Olivier Collaborateur, Haiti's leading private engineering school, has resumed classes under tents about an hour north of the capital, not far from where mass graves store tens of thousands of dead.

The students put the tents up themselves, and put them back up when rains recently toppled them. University President Fritz Olivier has blueprints displaying new campus plans, complete with dorms for homeless students.

For now, he brings them in by school bus.

Professors teach architecture without the benefit of computers, Internet, electricity or even books. Olivier figures he'll need to raise $12 million.

"I am doing this by faith. I don't know where the money is going to come from," Olivier said. "This is something we will do on our own to serve as an example. We lost everything and are going to rebuild from scratch."

Photograph by: Charles Trainor Jr., Miami Herald/MCT

Source: MontrealGazette

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