A. D. McKenzie
HAVANA TIMES, Oct . 6 (IPS) — When Angelique tells her story, sadness and anger are mixed in her voice. She’s a student at the bustling University of Paris 8 here, but her country and family are never far from her thoughts.
Earlier this year, she lost her home and her old college when the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake hit Haiti. Angelique (who asked that her real name not be used for this article) was at her part-job in the hills of Port-au-Prince at the time, and escaped injury. But when she made it home she found that three people had been killed in the house that she shared with others.
The State University of Haiti, where she was studying sociology and from which she should have graduated last June, had also been badly damaged.
Angelique, 28, thought her future had been lost in the rubble, until friends in France offered to help.
Her benefactors included Jean Digne, president of the little known Montparnasse Museum, who has been active in efforts to assist Haitian artists and students, through exhibitions, seminars and other events. Angelique now plans to graduate next June and would like to do a master’s in communications afterwards.
“There has been a lot of talk about scholarships for Haitian students, but I haven’t received any scholarship, neither from the French government nor the government of Haiti,” Angelique says. “It’s my friends who have helped me.”
The Haitian government seems only interested in the upcoming elections. “That’s all they talk about now.”
Angelique says that even before the earthquake, conditions at the State University of Haiti left a lot to be desired.
“We had a shortage of books in the library and many of the officials didn’t seem interested in the students,” she told IPS. “The government wasn’t doing much then and hasn’t been doing anything for the university since the earthquake.”
Apart from the rebuilding of colleges, Angelique says she hopes the international community focuses on providing food and security for her compatriots. She says that many of her friends have not been lucky enough to continue their studies in Haiti. Some have stopped pursuing an education and have started working. Others, reluctantly, have opted to leave.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Haiti faces multiple challenges in the higher education sector. The country has one government university and some 200 private higher-education institutions, which charged relatively high fees before the earthquake. Fewer than 50 of these colleges are recognized by the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, leading to questions about their quality.
“Many universities and higher education institutions lost students, teachers, buildings, and equipment,” says Bechir Lamine, a UNESCO representative in Port-au-Prince. “Hardly any statistics exist as to the scale of such a loss.”
One of the leading non-public universities (Quisqueya) was left practically without any buildings, not even its latest acquisition “inaugurated barely one month before the earthquake,” Lamine told IPS in an e-mail interview. Quisqueya has been holding some of its classes in tents.
Haitian Universities Threatened with Losing Students
A significant issue for Haitian universities after the earthquake is that they are threatened with losing their students, contributing to the brain-drain from which the Caribbean nation already suffered, according to education experts.
An estimated 85 percent of college-educated Haitians live abroad, driven away by instability, poverty, violence and other ills.
“Many parents are sending their children to neighboring Dominican Republic or other countries to ensure that they continue their studies,” Lamine said.
“Most non-public universities perceive this as a threat because it’ll deprive them of their students, of their income, and as a consequence, of their teachers.”
Another issue has to do with replacing lost buildings and equipment. Some colleges have received equipment from overseas institutions, such as the new computers that the information technology institute ESIH got from Virgina Tech and IBM in the United States.
But “donor money is not forthcoming and therefore many are faced with difficulties in ensuring classes for the current academic year,” Lamine said.
“Tents and light shelters are used but there are fears the hurricane season could jeopardize all ongoing efforts.”
Right after the earthquake, many offers of scholarships and other educational assistance poured into Haiti — from the United States, Canada, Brazil, other Caribbean countries and European nations.
But most students have found it difficult to act on these offers, as files were lost in the earthquake and mere survival has taken precedence in some cases, says Dr. Samuel Pierre, a Haitian-born professor at the Icole Polytechnique de Montrial.
Pierre, who has been leading a program to help Haitian students studying in Canada, says that more work needs to be done, including better coordination of efforts and the follow-through on donations.
“We have to keep calling on the countries that have given a commitment to provide aid, because they’ve made promises but nothing has been done,” he told IPS.
At the institutional level, universities have taken the lead to assist in several cases. In Canada, most big universities cancelled fees for Haitian students over the last academic year, with some 200 students benefiting in Quebec, Pierre said. There is also a move to send some teachers to Haiti to assist with courses.
In the Caribbean, the University of the West Indies (UWI) has accepted 79 students from Haiti for the new academic year, says Dr. Matthew Smith, a professor of history at the UWI campus in Jamaica and co-coordinator of the university’s assistance to Haiti.
In the United States, offers have been made by dozens of universities, but there are problems with language as only a limited number of Haitian students have the English language skills to study at U.S. institutions.
Meanwhile, Brazil, a Portuguese-speaking country which has an abundance of university spaces and not enough qualified students to fill them, has offered 500 scholarships.
For higher education, the Haitian government has earmarked only 1 percent, or about 53 million dollars of the 5.3 billion dollars pledged by donors, but experts are pushing for more focus on universities, especially so that students can stay and contribute to the reconstruction efforts. They know that many who leave may never return.