MELBOURNE Thousands of students from the University of East Timor are still without accommodation, equipment, teachers or money to keep themselves.
Almost six months after Indonesia finally accepted East Timorese independence, the fledgling nation remains in ruins. Schools, colleges and the university stay shut while the people try to recover from the violence and devastation wreaked by the Indonesian-backed militia and military following last year's independence ballot.
Aid workers are negotiating with Indonesian authorities on behalf of several thousand Timorese students, previously enrolled in Indonesian universities, to allow them to resume their studies. Other students are still in Darwin, having escaped the violence with the help of Australian troops, but they have not been given visas that would enable them to study in universities here.
Labor former federal education minister Susan Ryan has called on the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee to coordinate efforts by Australian universities seeking to assist the revival of tertiary education in East Timor. Ms Ryan said there was extensive goodwill towards the East Timorese within Australian universities.
Ms Ryan is a member of the University of New South Wales council and has just returned from a visit to the island. She met student leaders, Unicef representatives, Australian aid officials and a member of the National Council of Timorese Resistance. She said the devastation of East Timor's education system "could not have been more complete".
"All teaching has ceased in higher education and schools," she said. "Primary and secondary schools have not reopened, partly because there is no programme of rebuilding and partly because the political leadership favours the use of Portuguese in education. If this policy is maintained, any remaining teachers will have to learn the language and appropriate new curricula and resources will have to be developed."
AVCC executive director Stuart Hamilton said vice-chancellors had been discussing several suggestions for Australian universities to assist East Timorese access to higher education.
"I agree with Susan Ryan that there is a lot of goodwill, but there is a need to ensure that any actions are effectively coordinated, including work being funded by AusAid, the UN and the World Bank," Mr Hamilton said.
The World Bank noted that if East Timor was extremely poor before the violence, it was now twice as poor. The bank's country director for East Timor, Klaus Rohland, said that since the September scorched-earth policy, per capita income had fallen from $380 (Pounds 240) to $190 (Pounds 140) a year.
Economic activity was returning to the streets of the towns and foreign aid would boost the economy but, Mr Rohland, said the most important task was to replace aid with productive economic activities.
"You have a race with time, with the growing tensions in the country because of the unemployment and the economy being in such a dismal state," he said.