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Francophone universities cooperate to help Haitian universities

New action plan for Haitian universities unveiled by AUF at Montreal conference.

BY PHILIP FINE | JUN 08 2010

Geography professor Jean-Marie Théodat gets a paycheque from a university in Paris to run an office in Haiti. The bureau he manages is part of the Agence universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF), the Montreal-based international association of more than 700 French-speaking universities. That the Sorbonne is paying his professor’s salary for the work he’s doing with the AUF is one example of how francophone postsecondary institutions around the world have been offering assistance to the country that is rebuilding after the Jan. 12 earthquake.

About 25 universities in Canada have also been generous, waiving or greatly reducing tuition fees for Haitians, sending volunteer professors, raising money for the country and setting up scholarship programs for Haitian students.

Before the quake, Laurier Turgeon, director of Université Laval’s cultural heritage institute had been working with the Haitian cultural ministry on the country’s heritage archives, with the goal of boosting cultural tourism. Three people from his Haitian office died when the concrete building, located next to the infamous Hotel Montana, crumbled.

Dr. Turgeon is now sending volunteer professors back to Haiti to teach. The classes are now taught in an undamaged banquet hall that his staff needs to vacate on weekends to make way for the wedding parties.

In late May, the many displays of assistance by francophone universities were put into a coherent action plan written by Dr. Théodat and unveiled in Montreal at the AUF’s two-day conference on how to rebuild Haiti’s universities. The conference drew 115 delegates to Université de Montréal, including representatives from Haitian universities.

The document calls for a new Haitian ministry of higher education and innovation and a new research-funding agency. Also central to the plan is a digital campus project that the AUF hopes to have running this fall; for that it needs to raise $1.25 million. Scholarships to allow students to finish their studies and to train new professors are also in the plan.

In addition, $320,000 would pay to bring in volunteer supplementary teaching staff, mostly retired professors. Innovative ideas for Haiti’s unique circumstances include the creation of clusters of specialized disciplines, subsidized transport, more “green” buildings and university classes in relief camps.

While the conference was entitled “Rebuilding Haiti’s Universities,” by all accounts the system had yet to be built to the standards of what most nations would expect of their institutions of higher learning.

“The situation in Haiti was disastrous before the quake hit,” said George Haddad, director of Unesco’s division of higher education, in an interview. For example, the Haitian university system included these characteristics even before January:

  • The average university professor earned less than a bricklayer;
  • 11 percent of Haiti’s university teachers hold a doctorate;
  • Just two professors in the country are qualified to oversee a doctoral thesis;
  • More than 15,000 Haitians are enrolled in universities in the Dominican Republic;
  • Just 0.4 percent of the government’s budget is allocated to higher education;
  • Just 47 of Haiti’s 200 higher education institutions award government-approved diplomas.

The AUF has asked its eight member universities in Haiti to identify disciplines most in need of scholarships and is pushing the often-fractious group to speak with one voice. Bernard Cerquiglini, rector of the AUF, said the organization will match the needs of the Haitian university community with donors, including governments around the world that promised US$9 billion in short and long-term recovery, as well as many others who have offered assistance for the country’s higher education sector.

AUF president Yvon Fontaine, who is also rector of Université de Moncton, implored delegates that “there is no place for complacency.” The AUF plans to follow up with a timeline of initiatives and will soon convene a committee that, among its tasks, will identify donors.

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and university associations in other countries have been lobbying their respective governments to increase assistance for higher education in Haiti. AUCC made the case to the Canadian International Development Agency, says Pari Johnston, AUCC’s director of international relations. While donor countries tend to focus on helping primary and secondary education, she noted that “universities’ role in teacher training and building capacity in the education ministry makes them an important player in a country’s basic education system.”

Many at the conference wanted to make sure that the action plan will be taken seriously by the Haitian government and the world. The World Bank’s tertiary education coordinator Jamil Salmi said that delegates should make sure pledges turn into contracts. “There needs to be action taken and real commitments made – with signatures.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Théodat, the Haitian-born professor from the Sorbonne, told University Affairs, “It took 30 years and an earthquake to bring me back to Haiti.” One of his self-assigned tasks is rebuilding his mother’s house that was destroyed in the earthquake. He hopes to have it rebuilt by Aug. 4, when she celebrates her 88th birthday. Rebuilding Haiti’s universities will be an even bigger gift that he can give to the scarred country that has welcomed him back.

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