Haitian Universities Struggle to Rebound

University campuses across Port-au-Prince were rendered unusable by the earthquake two years ago. With the second anniversary of the earthquake approaching, Andrew Downie looks at the state of the local universities in this article for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Faculty of Applied Linguistics at the State University of Haiti hardly looks like an institute of higher learning. Hidden away on a quiet downtown cross street, the grimy one-story building contains just three classrooms, along with a library, the dean’s office, and a teachers’ lounge, each no larger than a bedroom. Two years ago, the accommodations were slightly better, in a larger building with a language lab.

Then, at 4:53 p.m. on January 12, 2010, an earthquake rocked Haiti, taking hundreds of thousands of lives and destroying thousands of buildings, including many schools and universities. The linguistics building was among the hardest hit: Its top two floors crashed to the ground, killing all but about a dozen of the 300 students, professors, and staff on site.

Two years after the quake struck, higher education in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation is struggling to rebound. The always fragile sector has made only marginal improvements, hamstrung by a lack of equipment, qualified people, and space. What universities want most is money, but most international donors either have focused their efforts on elementary and secondary education or have been hesitant to hand over cash in a country riddled with corruption and mismanagement.

Gertrude Pierre, a nursing student at the State U. of Haiti, lives in a tent made of tarps and wooden poles. “I’m finishing up this year, but I still have a year or two more,” she says. “Hopefully one day my education will help me improve my situation.”

Ben Depp for The Chronicle

Gertrude Pierre, a nursing student at the State U. of Haiti, lives in a tent made of tarps and wooden poles. “I’m finishing up this year, but I still have a year or two more,” she says. “Hopefully one day my education will help me improve my situation.”

Professors’ salaries are low and often go unpaid. Only a small percentage work full time. And university leaders are struggling not just to find the means to reconstruct buildings but also to reconceive the role of the university in a nation with so few resources.

“The quake was the opportunity to rebuild the system as a whole,” says Béatrice Kébreau, regional administrator of the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie, a Paris-based group of international universities. “Governments in the past never supported higher education. The curriculum was weak, and the funding wasn’t there. If they are building buildings and not rethinking the system that didn’t work in the first place, then things will only go from bad to worse.”

The 1-Percent Problem

The reconstruction process has been especially difficult because successive Haitian governments never paid much attention to higher education in this nation of 10 million people. Only 22 percent of Haitians finish elementary school, and only 1 percent have completed college, according to government figures. Some 39 percent of the population is illiterate, so the top priority, however badly executed, has always been elementary education.

Soon after the quake, the country’s president at the time, René Préval, created a presidential task force on education, which was charged with drafting a five-year “Operation Plan” for reforming Haiti’s education system. It proposed expanding higher-education enrollments and raising more than a half-billion dollars to rebuild and revamp the system.

Haiti’s current president, Michel Martelly, who took power in May, named the country’s first-ever under secretary for higher education, although he also emphasized that his focus is on bolstering elementary education.

So far though, grand plans have seen little follow-through. Those in charge of higher education at the education ministry say they have had to beg for money, often in vain. They doubt that the appointment of Jean Claude François to the higher-education post will make much difference.

“We don’t have a specific budget,” says Florence Pierre-Louis, director of the higher-education sector at the ministry. “When I need something we make a request for funds, but it is rarely approved. I am very frustrated. Every time I go to the government and explain our problems, I am rebuffed and told the priority is primary education.” 

Worse Off

There is little doubt that Haiti’s universities are far worse off now than they were before the earthquake. A study carried out immediately after the disaster by the Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development, based in Haiti, found that 87 percent of the country’s 32 largest universities had been either demolished or badly damaged.

The State University of Haiti was among the hardest hit. It is the country’s best known and largest institution, enrolling as many as two-thirds of the 38,000 students in the higher-education system—across a network of 11 faculties, or schools, in and around Port-au-Prince, and seven more elsewhere in the country. Nine of its 13 buildings were destroyed in the quake or were so damaged as to be unusable.

The neighboring Dominican Republic has built a new campus for the university in the north of the country (see article on facing page), and university leaders have set aside land to build a unified campus for its Port-au-Prince faculties just north of the city. But at many universities, lessons take place in makeshift classrooms fashioned from wood and wire that the instructors call chicken coops. Other classes are held in open yards or under canvas tents. Some happen in the shade of tropical trees, an experience one teacher good-naturedly calls “very Socratic.”

Agronomy students at the university live in buildings with big cracks in the walls; a few are housed in tents in the faculty patio, surrounded by goats, chickens, and smoldering garbage. Even where buildings are intact, some students prefer not to enter, because of lingering traumas.

And at almost all of the country’s institutions, vital materials that were already in short supply, such as books, computers, microscopes, and audiovisual equipment, were lost.

“The quake destroyed a lot of what we had,” says Jean Monnel Fils-Aimé, a 37-year-old senior in the school of linguistics. “There isn’t enough space. There is no language lab. There is no space to put a library. We don’t have enough books. And those in charge don’t do anything about it.”

Life Goes On

Yet the linguistics school is also a good example of how life goes on in Haiti. Students and professors work in the three ground-floor classrooms rebuilt with bricks and wooden partitions. Classes take place in windowless chambers filled with wood-and-metal school chairs facing a whiteboard or blackboard.

When there is electricity (it cuts out on a daily basis), a fan buzzes away in the corner.

One recent afternoon when a professor failed to show—not an unusual occurrence—several students, many of whom have nowhere else to go, sit at the back of the room chatting. A few others sit outside with their heads in their books. The lucky ones cram themselves into what passes for a library, a tiny room with a desk and two cabinets of books.

Out back, against a makeshift wooden wall, broken chairs and desks are piled up. Occasionally an instructor will pass by and almost apologetically wedge himself into the equally tiny lounge.

“We didn’t have enough space before, and now it is even worse. We do our best with the little space we have, but it is more difficult than ever,” says Saintfurmé Dorgil, a language professor who was in the building when it collapsed. He lost three fingers on his right hand but says he was one of the fortunate ones.

Although it educates an enormous number of students, the university’s budget is almost $10-million a year—a sum so small that administrators say it makes rebuilding nearly impossible.

“It was very difficult to restart because we lost our labs and all our infrastructure,” says Jean Vernet Henry, the rector. “We built some shelters to restart courses, but the hands-on aspect is difficult because you can’t practice in shelters. And teaching conditions are very difficult. We have tried to find funds and financing to rebuild, but we can’t.”

Reluctant to Help

Haitian universities have no tradition of planning ahead, and so foreign donors are reluctant to offer help without a clear idea of where their money is going to be spent. In comments echoed by other administrators, Mr. Henry says much of the assistance offered by partner universities from abroad is dependent on the Haitian institutions’ being up and running again, something they can’t do until they have new homes.

“We have received a lot of universities who can help us, but they don’t have the resources to build,” he says. “They can help us with distance learning, scholarships, student and teacher exchanges.”

The main problem for the university’s 11 faculties is a lack of money, the rector says. And while assistance from abroad was vital in helping universities get through the weeks and months following the disaster, longer-term aid is less focused on rebuilding infrastructure.

Construction costs are just one of several financial issues facing Haitian universities, though. Around 80 percent of the State University of Haiti’s annual budget goes to pay professors. And finding qualified staff who will accept low salaries—which are frequently not paid on time—is a constant headache.

In Haiti, more than half of university professors hold only bachelor’s degrees. Just one in 10 has a Ph.D. Most teach part time, earning around $12 an hour for the privilege. The university’s 100 full-time professors earn about $1,000 per month.

“It is very difficult to find quality teachers because we cannot pay,” Mr. Henry says. “When they get a Ph.D. they leave because we cannot keep them. They go to an NGO and get four or five times what they earn here. If you don’t have full-time teachers, then it is very difficult to orient students.”

Other experts agree and say most professors work other jobs during the day and teach classes in their specialized subjects in their spare time. As a result, few form close links to their students, and mentoring is rare.

Reform Efforts Stalled

There is talk of abolishing the senior thesis at the university because the lack of help from professors means that many students submit work of poor quality.

Efforts to reform the antiquated curriculum have stalled. Second-year students studying agriculture, for example, spend 46 hours a week in the classroom, including half a day on Saturday. First-year medical students sit through 44 hours of lectures a week, most days entering at 8 a.m. and not leaving until 5 p.m., not even for lunch.

“There is no time to digest this information. There is no time to read. There is no time to reflect. There is no time to do projects,” says Conor Bohan, an American who runs HELP, a foundation set up to give scholarships to Haiti’s top high-school graduates. “There’s no focus on critical-thinking skills in the Haitian education system.”

Such problems can be traced to the country’s history of poverty and oral traditions. Jane Regan, an American professor of audiovisual communication at the state university, reckons that her students are at the level of high-school juniors in the United States.

In a country where almost three-quarters of the population survives on less than $2 a day, many students can’t afford to eat, let alone buy books. Others travel for hours on packed buses to get to classes—or walk for miles because they can’t afford the bus fare.

And yet, says Ms. Regan, who has been teaching here for a year, the vast majority turn up on time, impeccably dressed, and with an exemplary attitude. “It makes you realize how spoiled American students are when they complain the Internet is down or the food is bad.”

Measures of Success

Some reform and rebuilding efforts, however modest, are under way, with foreign universities providing training and technical assistance to some Haitian universities (see article, Page A9).

Another major issue is the proliferation of unaccredited universities. Government officials and heads of the top private universities agree that Haiti must crack down on the many such enterprises that have sprung up in recent years.

Although Haiti has around 200 higher-education institutions, only 50 or so are licensed to operate, with most of the others bare-bones, storefront operations. The education ministry employs just three people to accredit new institutions and review existing ones.

The new under secretary for higher education says he plans to draft legislation by the middle of this year to establish firm accreditation and regulation guidelines.

That timeline might be optimistic given Haiti’s chronically slow pace of change, but administrators at private universities say they would support such an initiative as long as it is introduced gradually.

“You can’t close 150 universities overnight because they are not up to scratch,” says Patrick Attié, head of L’Ecole Supérieure d’Infotronique d’Haiti, which offers programs in business administration as well as computer science. “It has to be a smooth process so they fall by the wayside. It’s better to have students in bad universities than on the streets.”

Mr. Attié is more optimistic than most academics about Haitian higher education’s ability to bounce back, and not just because his small institution is one of the few using the earthquake to start from scratch.

Some others have also rebounded relatively quickly, including highly regarded Quisqueya University. The private institution took out a bank loan to replace five-story buildings destroyed in the quake with solid one- and two-story structures.

Quisqueya and the State University of Haiti also are jointly developing a “doctoral college,” through which they aim to produce, in the next three years, at least 40 Ph.D.’s who will focus their research in areas of importance to Haiti’s development. Financing will come largely from the French government, French partner universities, and the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie, says Jacky Lumarque, Quisqueya’s rector.

It is a rare piece of positive news, and Mr. Lumarque believes the foreign aid is a sign that support is available for those universities that can guarantee the money will be spent productively.

Haitians are understandably reluctant to talk positively about a disaster that killed as many as 316,000 people. But they acknowledge that there are advantages in treating it as a watershed for the country—and for higher education.

“The quake brought the attention of the university world like never before,” says Mr. Lumarque. “That is a paradigm shift. This is a new trend and a great opportunity. We need to take it.”

For the original report go to http://chronicle.com/article/Haitian-Universities-Struggle/130170/

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