In times of change, VUB explores its own identity


As it welcomes a new rector and more international students, the Free University of Brussels (VUB) asked its community what the future of the institution should look like

All in the name

As the Dutch-speaking Free University of Brussels (VUB) undergoes structural changes, its executive and academic bodies met recently to discuss what the institution’s identity means in practice. During a one-day conference, policymakers, staff, students and alumni pondered on a question: Should the university’s future focus be on promoting educational liberalism or forging closer links with Brussels?

The WeAreVUB conference was held at a crucial time for the university. At the end of September, communication scientist Caroline Pauwels will take over as rector, replacing Paul De Knop, who has stood at the helm since 2008. She is only the second woman ever to lead VUB.

The university is also expanding by investing heavily in new student accommodation, classrooms, cultural spaces and a science campus. These investments follow an increased inflow of students: Since 2008, the university’s student body has increased from about 10,000 to 15,000. It has become more diverse as well: One in four VUB students now comes from abroad.

To get more staff, students and alumni involved in planning the future of the university, VUB hosted a conference last month in Anderlecht. VUB researchers Dimokritos Kavadias and Didier Caluwaerts presented the results of a survey carried out among 3,000 students, staff and alumni of the university.

Looking within

Among the more noteworthy discoveries was that participants said they feel that VUB is much more characterised by the “V” for “Vrije” (Free) in its name than by the “B” of Brussels. In other words, they believe that the VUB mostly stands for free – liberal, secular and progressive – thinking. One of the personifications of this philosophy is VUB professor Wim Distelmans, a leading advocate of euthanasia.

The conference participants, however, expressed that improving the bond with Brussels should become one of the priorities for the future. Pauwels, who spoke at the conference via a video message, said she was glad to hear this, as it had been the core of her election campaign.

For the university, Brussels is a living lab that gives us endless possibilities in education, research, innovation and internationalisation

- New VUB rector Caroline Pauwels

“For the university, Brussels is, in all aspects, a living lab,” she said. “It gives us endless possibilities regarding education, research, innovation and internationalisation, so we should focus on being an urban university that embraces the diversity of this city.”

Pauwels also referred to the social problems in Brussels, including the dramatic events of the last few months, and emphasised that VUB has to use its knowledge and expertise to improve the local community. These problems, she added, challenge the university to broaden its scope.

Agreeing with Pauwels’ vision, De Knop said that he felt the university can form a think-tank for the capital. In his speech at the conference, the out-going rector emphasised that Brussels offers the university insight into the forces that are changing society and declared that it’s necessary to see these changes from a positive perspective.

 “We have the advantage of being on the frontline of working with multilingualism, international networks, super-diversity and immigration flows,” he said.

Widening perspectives

To strengthen diversity, the various players are envisioning improving contacts with international institutions, arranging international internships, organising research collaborations and strengthening connections with universities abroad.

VUB also wants to commit to multi-lingual education by providing more study programmes in other languages. This could prove a complicated endeavour.

Flemish legislation requires that no more than 6% of Bachelor’s and 35% of Master’s degrees be taught in a foreign language. On top of that, courses offered in a foreign language must also be available in Dutch at another Flemish university.

Nevertheless, VUB will be offering a new Bachelor’s degree in social sciences starting in the autumn. The English-language programme combines sociology, political science and communication studies to teach students how to analyse complex social issues from multiple angles.

The degree is set up in collaboration with Ghent University, which will offer the same programme in Dutch.

In his speech, De Knop also noted the positive co-operation with the VUB’s French-speaking counterpart, ULB, from which the university split in 1969. He expressed a desire to strengthen the collaboration. The two universities will share a new science campus, called the Science & Technology Park, when it is completed in 2018.

The identity conference is not the end of the co-operation between the university’s policymakers and its students and staff. When Pauwels starts her term as rector, she plans to organise interactive workshops that will determine the concrete policy priorities for the next four years.

Photo courtesy VUB

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