Haitian university officials made an emotional plea today for more international aid in the aftermath of the devastating January earthquake, which leveled entire campuses and killed nearly 4,000 students and professors.
In particular, they argued the urgent need for scholarships for Haitian students to continue their studies at home.
"The most important priority is to help the students pay for their tuition, so we can pay the teachers," said Michaelle Saint-Natus, technical adviser to Haiti Tec, during the first Conference of the Americas on International Education, held in Calgary this week. "Please, we are asking from our hearts."
Most international aid to higher-education institutions in Haiti has been in the form of technical assistance, equipment, distance-education programs, and scholarships for Haitian students to study abroad. However, delegates noted that many students are too poor to take advantage of foreign scholarships, most of which do not cover air fare and other expenses.
"We need to create a critical mass of university graduates that enable us to function as a country," said Mackenson Doucet, rector of the public Ecole Supérieure d'Infotronique d'Haït, which teaches computer engineering and electronics. "The importance of this cannot be overstated."
Most of the delegates at the conference were from private institutions, which they said enroll roughly 80 percent of Haiti's 80,000 university students. (The Haitian Ministry of Higher Education puts the private share at 50 percent, with just 40,000 students enrolled before the quake. Such discrepancies in statistics are common in Haiti, given the country's highly disorganized and underfunded bureaucracy.)
However, they said most of the reconstruction efforts had been directed toward rebuilding the State University of Haiti, which had more than 10,000 students.
"It's easy for the State University to get money, but the private schools don't have the same voice," said Ms. Saint-Natus, whose university is private. "Most likely, the government is going to take care of its own first."
A Boston-based coalition of seven universities, led by the University of Massachusetts at Boston, is hosting a meeting in Port-au-Prince next week to discuss rebuilding Haiti's higher education system. The participants—which include Harvard University, Boston College, Boston University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—will focus on the needs of both the public and private sectors in Haiti. They will also work toward creating a long-term development strategy for higher education in the country, the consortium said in a press release today.
Struggling to Survive
In the meantime, Haitian universities are struggling to survive.
Haiti Tec, whose 300 students come from mostly poor families, charges tuition of $1,200 a year—nearly the annual per-capita income in Haiti. However, Ms. Doucet said many students had stopped paying since the earthquake, and the university has not been able to pay its teachers for months.
Haiti Tec has also suffered an inadvertent effect of the reconstruction efforts. Rents in the industrial park where the university is housed have skyrocketed from $1,800 to $3,000 over the past year, Ms. Saint-Natus said, in part, due to new demand from foreign companies that are seizing on tax breaks to set up operations in Haiti. The university is now looking to relocate to the outskirts of the capital. But first, it needs to find the funding.
So far, the university has received aid from the Florida-based aid organization Food for the Poor, which Ms. Saint-Doucet recommended as a channel for future donations.
And she had another idea: "If every Haitian student and professor abroad donated $1, it would be a huge help," she said. "Otherwise, we simply cannot go on."