Subject: Rising from the ashes

The Australian

November 23, 2005 Wednesday All-round Country Edition

Rising from the ashes

Brendan O'Keefe

Five years after starting from scratch, East Timor has a university it can be proud of, writes Brendan O'Keefe

THE campus buildings were gutted wrecks. There was no furniture and few computers and employees worked without pay for a year. The people who were to become staff and students had come down from the forested hills into Dili to find a city destroyed.

But still, in late 1999, amid the destruction and desolation left by Indonesian militias after East Timor voted to split from Indonesia, there was a hunger for knowledge strong enough to to build a university from scratch.

This is how the Universidade Nacionale Timor Lorosa'e, the National University of East Timor, was born five years ago. Last week, more than 5000 students, academics, administration staff, politicians, diplomats and military figures gathered on campus to celebrate the milestone.

UNTL is a growing, hopeful campus with plans to expand and build anew on the outskirts of Dili. There are plans, too, to link with other universities across the world. It has about 8000 students in seven faculties, about 280 East Timorese and international academics, and an international band of helpers.

But the picture was different in 1999 when academics from the former private university in Dili and the Polytechnic Dili, both destroyed, came together to plan for a new institution "for the future of the nation", in the words of vice-rector of academic affairs Francisco Miguel Martins. "We started from nothing ... zero," Martins says. "We worked to re-establish for one year with no payment from anyone."

East Timor Education Minister and UNTL foundation rector Armindo Maia says the university was established with a grant of just $US1.5million from the UN.In May 2000, 5000 people turned up for entrance exams, even though there was space at the university for only 2500. Those who missed out staged a demonstration, demanding to be admitted.

"I said: 'No, it is not possible. You must have good marks,"' Maia says. He was kidnapped and driven to UNTAET headquarters, where the students forced him to plead their case to the UN authorities and East Timorese leaders Xanana Gusmao and Mari Alkatiri. "The result was to have these students go through some kind of bridging course," he says.

Maia laughs about the incident but concedes that it was dangerous. "That was a time also when there were a lot of demonstrations and still a lot of violence," he says.

After student unrest had settled, Maia, Martins and other recruits from the former private university faced the task of building a university: not mere buildings but a community.

"When we opened, all that we had was the buildings; no furniture," Maia says. "The campus comprised two major buildings that were built by the Portuguese; one was burned down, the other one needed only minor rehabilitation. We had small number of computers and we had to recruit new teachers ... most of them only had degrees from an Indonesian university. There were very few with masters and only one or two with PhDs."

The students were happy, but for staff "the lack of books and facilities ... of course it was pretty difficult to run a proper course".

Because Indonesians had filled all the top posts during their rule, no East Timorese had experience in running a business or university. Added to this was the need to change student attitudes. Maia says the Indonesians were so relaxed about marking that students took a good grade for granted.

Now, there are seven faculties and student numbers are growing. Masters and doctoral graduates are coming back from abroad to continue their studies. More than 20 teaching staff are in Belgium, Portugal, the US, Australia, The Philippines and Indonesia studying for masters degrees.

One of these is Flaviano Soares, the dean of agriculture, who is nearing the end of a bridging course in English at the University of Queensland. Next year he will start his masters degree in animal science. He is sponsored by the federal Government's Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

Of UNTL's teaching staff, Martins says: "We have 32 masters degrees, three PhDs and most others still at undergraduate level."

Maia stepped down as rector in September 2001 to become Education Minister. Incumbent rector Benjamin de Araujo e Corte-Real is a PhD graduate in linguistics from Sydney's Macquarie University.

For now, Maia says the university needs to change its focus from teaching to research and to contribute more to the development of the country and its policy. "We know that universities can play the role of agents of social and technical transformation, so that's why we need a think tank for the country," he says.

It has to move to better service the country's main industries -- agriculture, oil and mining -- and the emerging ones, such as tourism. The medium-term plan is to move to a 40ha site at Hera, about 10km east of Dili.

Having established an institution of which the nation can be proud, the challenge is to impress the world, Martins says. "The university has to struggle to find academic co-operation of institutions in the world to develop quality," he says. "We have to struggle, to work very hard to manage the university so it can be accredited internationally."

The East Timorese have not been alone for the past five years. Many people in Australia have helped academics, administrators, librarians and students to find their way.

From Sydney's Mary MacKillop Institute for East Timor, Catholic nun Susan Connelly provides small scholarships for poor students. The institute sponsors about 60 students with $2500 in tuition fees.

"It's so essential that they pay the fees because otherwise the teachers and lecturers don't get paid and the whole payment of teachers throughout infants to universities is very important," Connolly says.

Living expenses of $30 a month are "for the ones down from the country who have no family support and are really hard-pressed to get two meals a day without it".

The trade union movement, through Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA, helps mainly with money for books and has provided equipment.

Charles Darwin University, with the Friends of the UNTL Library, has provided training for East Timorese librarians. CDU librarian Ruth Quinn says: "They spent a number of weeks observing how a well-established small tertiary library operates ... as well as having some English language tuition."

How to help:



THE University of East Timor now has about 280 academic staff, about 130 of them East Timorese and the rest from Cuba and Portugal. There are about 8000 students. The university has seven faculties and more than 20 departments:

* Agriculture has departments of agronomy, agribusiness and animal husbandry.

* The faculty of social and political science has three departments: public administration, government sciences and community development.

* The faculty of education has departments of English, Portuguese, mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics and teacher training for kindergarten and primary school.

* Economics has departments of management and development studies.

* Engineering has departments of civil, mechanical, electrical and electro-technical engineering and information technology.

* Medicine has just opened.

* Law was introduced this year.


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