PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Astride Auguste was late for an exam at Quiskeya University on that fateful Tuesday January 12, when the earthquake, or the event, as Haitians have come to call it.
Auguste, an undergraduate student in international affairs and management was nearby the campus when she felt the earth shook beneath her. She bounced a few times and eventually regained her composure. A few miles away, many of her fellow students had died after most of the buildings collapsed.
“I can’t believe it,” said a visibly shaken Auguste, days after the incident. “This is a nightmare. The year has been lost. I don’t know what am going to do now”
But 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 turn their world literally upside down.
As the Haitian government, the international community scramble to rescue, shelter and feed the homeless, and the injured, higher education appears not to be part of the concerns right now.
Quiskeya and scores of universities and colleges in the capital were destroyed during the earthquake. But no one has been affected more than that school, which recently finished a $2 million physical upgrade.
The State University of Haiti enrolls a mere fraction of high school graduates. The system at one time was considered among the best schools in the Caribbean. 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, have mushroomed around the capital to serve students who can’t gain admission into 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. Haiti needs to rebuild its educated class, the anchor of every stable economy and society,” said Conor Bohan, who runs a program that provides merit based scholarship for disadvantage high school graduates.
Until 1986 the state university, founded at the turn of the century, was the only university licensed to operate in Haiti, controlled by whatever dictator was in power.
However, scores of places that call themselves universities have sprung up in the last 20 years. The most reputable are members of the association of francopohone universities (www.auf.org). There are 8 members including the state university, the catholic university (Notre dame d’Haiti – UNDH) and Quisqueya, the largest private university.
The number of students enrolled in these universities is difficult to know. But only 1% of Haitians between the ages of 18-24 are enrolled. That rate is the lowest in the hemisphere. State university is largest university but the administration is weak, 11 faculties function quasi independently making for a fractured institution.
UEH administration has difficulty knowing its own enrollment. With about 80 percent of university buildings destroyed, the government held a meeting last week to plan a reconstruction strategy. Some of the ideas thrown around are prefab housing that can be put up in less than a week.
The Haitian Education and Leadership Program, or HELP, a local university scholarship program, is trying to use this opportunity to create partnerships between accredited Haitian universities and universities abroad, according to its 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, advanced degree possibilities for top Haitian graduates.”
Universities that has thus far expressed an interest are: Dillard University – historically black college in New Orleans, LA whose students were displaced during Katrina, Virginia Tech, Brown University & U. Polytechnique de Montreal
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. It is in the constitution but 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. “In short – Haiti’s educated class has left and is not being replaced. “