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Haiti’s University Languishes in Ruins – Part 2

This article is the second of a two-part series on the abandonment of the University of the State of Haiti by reconstruction authorities.

A building at the former Faculty of Medecine and Pharmacy. Credit: INURED

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Feb 24 2012 - When the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission failed to approve, or even respond to, a proposal by the University of the State of Haiti (UEH) for a unified campus to replace the nine destroyed or badly damaged faculties in the capital, Vice Rector Fritz Deshommes was not surprised at the silence.

Nor was he shocked at the fact that, 25 years after students and professors asked for help from Haiti’s post-dictatorship governments, they remain in separate faculties sprinkled across Port-au-Prince.

“The reason that the university campus has never been built is political. Because if all the students were permanently together in one place, they would have the necessary material conditions to better organise themselves and make their demands heard,” Deshommes told Haiti Grassroots Watch.

“Then they would be able to turn everything upside down. The political authorities understood the importance of this. A single campus is not in their interests,” he said.

The fight for a campus didn’t start only after the earthquake. It was born after 1986, the date of the end of the dictatorship of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Ever since a 1960 strike of students at the University of Haiti, François Duvalier established his control over the various faculties. He issued a decree on Dec. 16, 1960 creating the “University of the State” in the place of the University of Haiti, whose fascist character was apparent in the language of the decree.

Among other things, it said “considering the necessity to organise the University on new foundations in order to prevent it from transforming into a bastion where subversive ideas would develop…”

Article 9 was even clearer. It said that any student wanting to enroll in the university had to get a police paper certifying that he or she did not belong to any communist group or any association under suspicion by the state.

After Feb. 7, 1986 – which saw the departure of Jean-Claude Duvalier in a U.S.-government chartered airplane – one of the most dominant slogans became “Haiti is free!”

"A Race Between Education and Catastrophe"

A 2000 study funded by the World Bank – Peril and Promise: Higher Education in Developing Countries – sounded the alarm about the lack of investment in public higher education 10 years ago.

It reads: "Since the 1980s, many national governments and international donors have assigned higher education a relatively low priority. Narrow - and, in the view of many, misleading - economic analysis has contributed to the view that public investment in universities and colleges brings meager returns compared to investment in primary and secondary schools.

As a result, higher education systems in developing countries are under great strain. They are chronically underfunded, but face escalating demand—approximately half of today’s higher education students live in the developing world."

The study looked at enrollment and investment figures in countries around the world (figures from 1995).

Not surprisingly, in terms of enrollment, Haiti is far behind its neighbours, and in terms of investments, Haiti is at the bottom of the list. Even the Dominican Republic, well-known for its failure to invest in higher education, is ahead of Haiti.

The authors of the study – a committee of academics and former ministers headed by the ex-Dean of Harvard University and the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town – cited a warning from H.G. Wells:

The chance is simply too great to miss. As H.G. Wells said in The Outline of History, "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

The political uprising that spread throughout the country also extended to the university system. As in other sectors of Haitian national life, professors and students at the university demanded a number of reforms, as well as the construction of a campus that would gather together all the faculties sprinkled throughout the capital.

Since then, there has been some progress – the name was changed to UEH, there has been some democratisation, the level of teaching has been improved – but lack of financing has paralysed the institution. The budgets from the last few years show that UEH has never received more than one to 1.3 percent of the state budget.

Even worse, the government’s Action Plan for Renewal and Development (PADRN in French), proposed by the René Préval team, asked for only 60 million dollars for “professional and higher education” as part of its request for 3.864 billion dollars sought for reconstruction – only 1.5 percent of the total.

The new Michel Martelly government showed signs it would increase UEH’s budget, but according to a recent report by AlterPresse, a member of the Haiti Grassroots Watch partnership, the most recent budget dedicates only 1.5 percent to UEH.

“This budget shows the contempt that our elected officials have for the country’s principal public institution of higher education, as well as their evident desire to weaken it and perhaps even do away with it altogether,” Professor Jean Vernet Henry, rector of UEH, told AlterPresse in the Jan. 27 article.

“Friends of Haiti” support the private sector

At the very moment the proposal for the State University of Haiti campus was locked in a drawer, the Dominican Republic built a university campus in the north of the country – the King Henry Christophe University. Built in only 18 months, the campus cost 50 million dollars.

And the universities and government of the “friends of Haiti” countries?

Despite a number of meetings and conferences held abroad and at seaside hotels and at the most expensive conference centres in the country, despite the promises of a number of U.S. universities, through at least two consortia, and despite the promises at the Regional Conference of Rectors and Presidents of the Francophone University Agency (AUF in French) as well as the AUF, most courses are still taught in sheds and temporary buildings.

“We have hosted a lot of universities who are capable of assisting us, but they don’t have the resources to build,” Rector Henry told the Chronicle of Higher Education in an article published last January.

“They can (only) only help us through long-distance courses, scholarships and exchanges,” he added.

In the meantime, at Quisqueya University, a private institution, reconstruction is moving along well. Back in October, the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission gave a green light for a project of the Faculty of Medicine, and more recently – last December – the Clinton Bush Fund offered 914,000 dollars for a “Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation”.

“The Center will be a destination for business people of all levels,” the Fund’s Paul Altidor said in an article on the Fund’s website.

The focus of Haiti’s “friends” is clear.

The future in peril

But a 2000 study of public sector universities in the developing world called “Peril and Promise” is also clear, especially on the urgency of investing in public sector higher education.

It says, “Markets require profit and this can crowd out important educational duties and opportunities… The disturbing truth is that these enormous disparities are poised to grow even more extreme, impelled in large part by the progress of the knowledge revolution and the continuing brain drain…

“For this reason the Task Force urges policymakers and donors – public and private, national and international – to waste no time. They must work with educational leaders and other key stakeholders to reposition higher education in developing countries.”

That was back in 2000.

Have Haitian politicians, donors, and the “citizens” in the north and others trying to take over the King Henry Christophe University read that report?

Many critics fear that Haiti’s past and present governments – who permitted in the past and persist in permitting the deterioration and denigration of a commonly held good, the State University of Haiti – have been so completely swept away by flood of neoliberal thinking that they don’t see the catastrophe that they have and are in the process of constructing, through non-reconstruction.

*Students from the Journalism Laboratory at the State University of Haiti collaborated on this series.

Haiti Grassroots Watch is a partnership of AlterPresse, the Society of the Animation of Social Communication (SAKS), the Network of Women Community Radio Broadcasters (REFRAKA) and community radio stations from the Association of Haitian Community Media.

To see the photos and read more stories visit Haiti Grassroots Watch.

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