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Higher Education

Tertiary or higher education is offered in universities, settings in which teaching and research are combined, and at other institutions of higher learning and training. The typical route into the university track is via the diploma of secondary high school education. Until 1965, higher education followed the traditional French system and was confined largely to four universities, of which two were run by the state (Gent and Liége), two used Dutch as the language of instruction (Gent and Brussels), and two used French (Brussels and Liége). Laws of 1965 and 1970 made possible the creation of new universities and other institutions providing higher education, and divided higher education into long-type and short-type. As a result of these reforms, Belgium obtained a total of 17 university institutions and 407 institutions for higher education. These institutions reflect its multifaceted pluralism in culture, religion, language of instruction, philosophy, and political leanings.

There are six long-standing major universities, of which two (Liége and Gent) are state universities, two are catholic (Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve), and two are free universities (the Université Libre de Bruxelles or ULB and the Vrije Universiteit van Brussel or VUB). The Catholic University of Leuven was founded in 1425 by papal decree and is one of the oldest in Europe. In 1968 the Flemish university elected to remain in the Flemish city of Leuven, banishing the university's French component to a new location at Louvain-la-Neuve, a town in the middle of the Walloon countryside. Thence, the Katholieke Universiteit and the Université Catholique became two separate institutions. The medical faculty moved to the Brussels suburb of Woluwe. About half of the universities offer comprehensive programs, including philosophy, letters, social sciences, economics, law, natural sciences, and medicine. Including the Royal Military School and the joint research institute of the Free University of Brussels, there are a total of 19 universities in Belgium.

All universities offer two levels (called cycles) of university education. Students obtain the Candidature (Kandidaat) after two years and the Licence (Licentiaat) after four years. Universities in the French community offer a third cycle leading to the diploma of specialized studies (DES, diplôme d'études spécialisées), the diploma of advanced studies (DEA, diplôme d'études approfondies), teaching qualification (agrégation), or the doctorate degree for which a thesis must be completed. The third cycle requires a minimum of one and up to three additional years of study. The university curriculum in the French community is organized in three sectors (human and social sciences; sciences; health sciences), containing 22 different fields of study overall. Professional and technical higher education pursued at nonuniversity institutions of higher learning (Hautes écoles) comprises the long type (four to five years) or the short type (two to three years), and prepares students entering professions in industry, commerce, arts, and the fields of paramedical maritime studies.

In the Flemish community, non-university higher education in hogescholen and other institutions was reorganized in 1995-96 to make the curricular requirements similar to those in universities. Short-type and long-type tertiary education in those institutions was replaced by first-cycle and second-cycle coursework. The reforms caused the merger of 163 institutions of higher learning into 29 additional hogescholen. Students in hogescholen make up 60 percent of all higher education students in the community. Since Belgian universities have an open admissions policy, increasing numbers of Dutch students study at Flemish universities and other institutions of higher learning. Some observers believe that this open admissions policy contributes to the high dropout rate of nearly 50 percent in the Community. Flemish universities also have begun to collaborate with the universities of the Netherlands in the "open university" model, a distance education environment, serving a student body that includes many part-time and older students, and making use of modern technologies to deliver instruction. Multimedia technology is being widely applied to innovate and redesign curricula, to deliver instruction, and to enhance student learning. In the 1990s, cooperation between universities in the Flemish community with those in the Netherlands led to stringent quality control in the form of self-assessment by institutions and peer evaluation.

In June 1987 the council of the European Communities initiated the ERASMUS higher education program (European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students), designed to foster:

  • students incorporating study in another member country, contributing to direct experience in social and economic life of members of the labor force;
  • cooperation between universities and other institutions of higher learning of the member states;
  • inter-university mobility of faculty;
  • citizen interaction;
  • development of a pool of university graduates experienced in inter-community cooperation.

Success of this ambitious program would require establishment of a European cooperative university network, thus far nonexistent, grant funding for both students and faculty, enhanced recognition of diplomas, length of study, and increased reliance on conferences and similar academic activities. The commission provides financial support to universities in the member states for the establishment of Inter-University Cooperation Programs (ICPs) that tie in with the five stated goals.

During the adoption of the second phase of ERASMUS, in the 1988-89 academic year, Belgian universities were involved in 191, or 17.5 percent, of the 1,091 funded ICPs from the twelve member countries, and Belgian ICPs provided grants to 219 university students, or 3.1 percent of the 7,031 total in the European Community. While European students entering the program in Belgium encountered a number of academic problems, particularly in relation to foreign language courses and examinations being administered in a foreign language, Belgian students experienced relatively few academic difficulties, with only 11 percent performing at a level below that of domestic students in the member countries' institutions of higher learning. Participation by Belgian students in ERASMUS had increased steadily from 1,385 students in 1989-1990, to a high of 8,111 in 1995-1996.

In the 1990s two new programs have been introduced in the European Union: SOCRATES and LEONARDO DA VINCI. While the latter supplants earlier vocational training programs, SOCRATES has replaced the community programs of ERASMUS and LINGUA (a community language teaching program) and is intended to provide a European dimension in education at all levels.

University Research: Basic research has been part of university activities and education since 1874, and several university institutes connected with Belgian universities have achieved international reputations in scientific research. The Center for Human Heredity at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven has achieved international recognition in gene technology research, and the Inter-University Microelectronics Center in Leuven, established in 1984, is a leader in computer chip technology. The Rijksuniversiteit Gent maintains a very large bacteria bank and its Plant Genetic Systems, established in 1982, is renowned for its research in developing insect-resistant plants. Several scientific research projects at Belgian universities have also become part of larger EU and international programs. The AIDS epidemic in Africa was first documented by Belgian epidemiologists and the European network for AIDS treatment is coordinated by a faculty member from the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Moreover, the faculty of agronomic sciences at Gembloux is a participant in the European program Biotech, and the Université de Liége has a space research department that collaborates closely with the European Space Agency.

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Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceBelgium - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education