Dwindling interest from students threatens future of Latin studies


Impending budget cuts at the VUB have started a debate about the future of classical studies in Flanders

VUB professor starts petition to safeguard one Latin chair

Impending budget cuts are threatening the future of Latin and classical studies at the Free University of Brussels (VUB). If VUB administrators stick to their guns, this will make Ghent University and the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) the only Flemish institutions of higher education to offer Latin courses. And their enrolment numbers, too, have been dwindling.

In response, VUB professor Christian Laes, whose own contract at the university is at stake, started the online petition “Quo vadis? Free University of Brussels without Latin?”

“This is not just a protest against the ending of my own contract,” says Laes, also chairman of the umbrella group Classica Vlaanderen. “It is a call to preserve the attention for the roots of our Western civilisation.”

In the space of three weeks, 3,450 people signed the petition. Laes says that Classica Vlaanderen is  preparing further actions. His main goal is to safeguard one Latin professorship at the university in the long term. He hopes that the petition and the media attention it has drawn will lead the VUB to reconsider its decision.

But according to VUB spokesperson Sicco Wittermans that is unlikely to happen. Wittermans says that the university decision is definitive and that it will be confirmed by the Board of Directors later this month. He says that the budget cuts are unavoidable and that the VUB is focusing on improving its international appeal by, for example, its new academic language centre ACTo, which opened earlier this month. 

Need to save €250,000

The Latin programme at the VUB has been eroding for some time. This year, Laes taught just seven students in the Master and third Bachelor year combined. Among them were a teacher and a musicologist who wanted extra training. 

This is not just a protest against the ending of my own contract

- Christian Laes

This summer, the university announced that the faculty of arts and philosophy would have to save €250,000 over the next four years, and that two retiring professors in classical studies would not be replaced. But according to the plans made public a few weeks ago, there’s more.

Laes’ contract will also not be extended. This means that by October of 2015, the VUB will no longer offer courses – not even introductory ones –  involving Latin or Ancient Greek. Most topics relating to classical culture will also be dropped from the curriculum.

According to Laes, who also teaches at the University of Antwerp, the advantages of classical studies are legio. “They are like a gateway to discover the origins of, among others, our Western justice system and artistic culture,” he says, adding that Latin comprehension helps to learn other languages and improves learning methods and problem-solving skills. 

A teacher shortage

UGent and KU Leuven are also offering Latin studies, but the interest has also waned. In 2006-2007, 152 classical students were enrolled at KU Leuven, compared to 104 this year. At UGent, their numbers decreased from 112 to 100 over the same period. “This downward trend is not very significant when put into a long-term perspective,” responds Laes.

Science and Latin don’t stand in opposition to one another

- Christian Laes

Meanwhile, the numbers of students taking Latin at the secondary-school level has remained steady at about 40,000 across Flanders. This is why some experts in fact foresee a shortage of Latin teachers as baby-boomer professors begin to retire over the next few years.

Laes also doesn’t think that pushing science studies will lead to a decreased interest in Latin. “For example, research shows that students in Latin-Sciences tracks in secondary schools have very good graduation chances,” he says. “Science and Latin don’t stand in opposition to one another; they are compatible.”



Free University of Brussels (VUB)

The VUB was established as a spin-off of the French-speaking Université Libre de Bruxelles in the 1960s. It’s an internationally oriented and liberal institution, and the only Dutch-speaking university in the capital.
Work - The VUB is the largest Dutch-speaking employer of the Brussels-Capital Region.
St V - Every year, students honour university founder Pierre Theodore Verhaegen in a festive, booze-filled “St V” march through the city.
Campus - The VUB is the only Dutch-speaking university with a small, American-style green campus.

Master’s programmes offered


million euros in research budget in 2010

12 000

students in 2011-2012 academic year