Khaled Diab investigates what Belgium
can offer those students who want to take undergraduate courses in English.
Life is full of milestones, but one of the most
memorable for many people is their university days. For young people, the
choice of where to study is often a tricky one, and many students start
thinking about it long before their final school year. Nowadays, the issue is
even more complex with the widening geographic dimension as people have become
The dilemma faced constantly by young expats
is: “Should I study back home, in my host country or in a third country?” For a
growing number of Belgian youth, the question has become: “Should I study in my
native language, or would I gain more advantages in the international setting
by studying in English?”.
To help shed some light on such questions, (A)WAY has already looked into the
opportunities for studying in English-speaking countries. Here we turn our
attention to undergraduate programmes offered in the medium of English in Belgium.
Top of the global
The Belgian education system is one of the best
in the world. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) consistently
places the kingdom’s schoolchildren among the world’s highest performers. One
particularly eye-catching result, given European students’ waning performance
in mathematics, was that Flemish students were in the top three for
mathematical literacy alongside the Japanese and Koreans.
This should come as no surprise when we
consider that Belgium
pumps more than 3% of its gross domestic product, and 6% of its state budget,
into education. In fact, education – which, like many policy areas has devolved
to the regions – is the biggest single budget line at regional level.
At the tertiary level, Belgium
qualifies top-rate graduates, and its universities are involved in cutting-edge
research, from brain research and biomedicine to nanotechnology. There are
eight main universities: two branches of the Free University of Brussels (VUB
and ULB), two branches of the Catholic University of Leuven (Leuven and
Louvain-la-Neuve), Antwerp, Gent, Liège and Mons.
Language front line
is a country united by pragmatism and divided by language. After its creation
in 1830, French was the only recognised official language, and was used for all
official purposes, including education, despite the fact that the country is
made up of three distinct language groups.
The so-called ‘language wars’ – and subsequent
compromises – have led to the current system whereby education is devolved to
the regions and, by law, the main language of instruction at schools and at
undergraduate levels has to be that of the region. This has the unfortunate
side effect that Belgium
does not take advantage of bilingual ‘immersion’ education. It also means that Belgium’s
eight main universities do not generally offer English-medium Bachelor
programmes, although many offer postgraduate ones.
“At Bachelors level, only 10% [of the syllabus]
can be taught in another language,” explains Delfien Cloet of GentUniversity’s International
(www.kuleuven.ac.be/english/), offers two rather unusual undergraduate
programmes completely in English: one in theology and religious studies and the
other in philosophy.
“The law dictates that any programmes taught in
another language must have an equivalent in Dutch. That makes it harder to
organise Bachelor programmes,” admits Jan Herpelinck of LeuvenUniversity.
But the demand is there for English-medium
education and many institutions are finding innovative ways around the dilemma.
One option is to set up a private college.
Back to school after
William Shakespeare’s Richard III offered his
entire kingdom for a horse after his own trusted steed was killed in battle.
Lauren Smith exchanged her life in the United
States working with show jumpers to move to Belgium
– one of the world’s leading horse-breeding nations – and take up employment on
a horse farm.
Now, at 23 and six years after she completed
high school, she has decided to go to university. “I’d been living here for two
years prior to going back to school. I have set up a good life here and I
wanted to continue the ‘abroad’ experience,” she explains.
And so she decided to enrol at VesaliusCollege (see box). “The
college is competitively priced compared with the United
States. The classes are small and, as an older
student, the three-year degree programme is attractive. Here, I can complete
Bachelor and Masters qualifications in four years. In the US, it would take me
Where America meets Belgium
The Flemish arm of the Free University of Brussels
(VUB), with the assistance of BostonUniversity,
set up VesaliusCollege
nearly two decades ago as an English-medium, American-style liberal arts
college. Named after a Belgian Renaissance freethinker, it educates some 350
undergraduate students. Despite a low student-to-teacher ratio, it only offers
majors in business, communications and international affairs.
“These courses are the most compatible with Brussels
itself,” explains Pamela Dalby, the college’s director of student support
The college draws its student population from some 40
to 60 countries. The biggest group of students studying at the college are
Belgians, but often those with some foreign blood. Another major group comprises
expatriates who went through school here and want to remain, she explains.
is in a very special position and we help set up internships for our students
at EU institutions, multinationals, etc.,” adds Dalby.
Fees: €4,900 per semester
Annual costs: €16,000 approx, including fees, books, housing
‘Your life: part 2’
is the slogan of EHSAL, the European University College Brussels. In Dutch, it
offers degrees – both undergraduate and postgraduate – in economics and
management, healthcare, education and social studies. In English, it offers
business-related programmes. At the Bachelor level, it offers business
administration, and English and economics for academic studies. There is also a
full-time non-degree programme to prepare students for the Bachelor of Business
“In the 2005/2006 academic year, we launched our BBA programme
which targets both Belgian and international students,” explains Ingeborg
Vandenbulcke, head of external co-operation at EHSAL. “The reason we set it up
is that demand for such programmes is high in Belgium.
And for students from some parts of the world, studying in Dutch is just not
possible. We also wanted to create a more international feel.”
While EHSAL has 5,000 students studying in Dutch, some
60 students follow its BBA programme. They mainly come from Belgium
and the rest of the EU, but also from as far afield as Nigeria
and the United States.
Fees: €523 for citizens of the European Higher Education Area. €5400 annually
for other nationalities
Cost of accommodation and subsistence: €500per month
There are also a number of private full-time,
part-time or distance learning options which specialise in particular areas. Some
of these institutions may not be recognised by the Belgian state and tend to
charge high fees.
The United Business Institute in Brussels
(www.ubi.edu) offers a three-year Bachelors programme in business
studies. The Business School of Hotel Management – BBA (www.bbahotelschool.org) offers a three-year bachelors programme in
international hotel management.
largest, albeit largely virtual, state-funded university, the Open University
has a branch of its BusinessSchool
in Brussels. It
offers a wide range of ‘blended learning’ management and professional
The Erasmus Hogeschool Brussels (www.ehb.be) teaches mostly in Dutch, but is working to establish
a range of programmes in English. It currently offers only one Bachelors
programme entirely in English: Communication and Languages as Strategic Skills
The International Management Institute in Antwerp
(www.timi.edu) provides a number of undergraduate and graduate
programmes. At the Bachelor level, it provides degrees in business
administration, business communication and public relations, European business
and management, as well as information systems.
article appeared in the May 2006issue
January 2005 –
To hear some politicians speak, one would think that language and culture were
the panacea for all Belgium’s
social and economic woes vis-à-vis its immigrant community. Read on
state of pragmatism
March 2004 – As one of the original six
founders of the European Union, Belgium
has been a powerful driving force behind the continent’s unification. However,
after nearly 174 years of pragmatic nationhood, the marriage between its two
main communities has become increasingly shaky. What are the prospects for
enduring national unity and how much does it matter in a borderless Europe?
than meets the eye
March 2004 – As the European Union prepares for
a political shift eastwards, its famously Byzantine politics will get just that
bit more confusing. The new member states may make the EU’s bureaucratic
landscape seem greyer, but the accompanying influx of thousands of eastern
Europeans will make the cultural kaleidoscope of Brussels, the city that plays
host to so many of its institutions, that much more colourful. Read on
January 2003 – Many parents are calling for
immersion language learning to be made widespread in Belgium
but a debate over pedagogy and politics stands in the way. Read on
ã2006 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website
is the copyrightof Khaled Diab.