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There are many reasons to want to study in Belgium: world-renowned universities, excellent opportunities for international networking, famously multicultural and multilingual cities, a host of regional cuisines and specialties, beautiful countryside, overall high quality of life, and, of course, those fantastic Belgian waffles.
An established hub for international politics, Belgium’s capital Brussels has even more ambassadors and journalists than Washington DC, and is the headquarters of many international businesses and organizations. As you’d expect, Belgium’s resident population is also highly international, with around a quarter of the population of 11 million known as ‘new Belgians’ – those from other countries, and their descendants, who have become permanent citizens.
Likewise, many universities in Belgium have a strong international outlook and composition, as well as a strong position in the international rankings. A total of seven universities in Belgium are featured in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings®, all within the global top 300 and six within the top 200. The highest ranked Belgian university is the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, currently placing at 77th in the world.
Higher education in Belgium is organized by the country’s two main language communities: the Flemish Community and the French Community. German-speaking students typically attend a Belgian university in the French Community, or go to study in Germany. While French and Dutch are the standard languages of teaching, there are also many international programs taught in English.
There are various different types of higher education institution (HEI) in Belgium, including universities, university colleges (called hautes ecoles in the French Community), art colleges (called ecoles supérieures des arts and only offered in the French Community), institutes of architecture (only available in the French Community) and the academy of the Belgian Army. In both Communities, there are also registered HEIs which issue specialized degrees or provide education in a foreign language, and degree programs or entire institutes that are recognized by a foreign country rather than by the Flemish or French Communities.
As in most European countries, a bachelor’s degree usually takes three years to complete and a master’s degree one to two years. Bachelor’s degrees are categorized as either a ‘professional bachelor’ which has a vocational element, or an ‘academic bachelor’ which is more academic and prepares students to pursue a master’s degree. Having obtained a master’s degree, students can then pursue research projects leading to a doctorate degree. Bachelor and master’s degrees can be awarded by both colleges and universities in Belgium, while PhDs are only awarded by universities.
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Find out more about universities in Belgium and life in the country’s major student cities…
Belgium’s capital city is also often called the ‘Capital of Europe’, due to the many international organizations that call Brussels home. Since World War II, it has become the administrative center of major international organizations such as the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the World Customs Organization and EUROCONTROL, to name only a few. So, if you intend to study politics, international relations or perhaps translation studies, Brussels is probably your go-to Belgian city. With 20,000 people working in the EU offices on any given day, there’ll be plenty of occasions for networking and forming connections that may be useful after graduation, whether you intend to remain in Belgium or relocate abroad.
The city itself goes beyond its reputation as a center of administration and bureaucracy, offering a thriving nightlife, a world-class collection of restaurants, cafés, bistros and bars, and a unique selection of shopping experiences including open air markets and ‘galleries’: historic, covered shopping streets. Although smaller than most European capitals, the cosmopolitan and increasingly multilingual Brussels offers plenty in the way of culture and architecture; notable attractions include the comic museum; stunning gothic, baroque and medieval architecture including the Grand Place (a UNESCO World Heritage Site); and historic landmarks such as the famous Mannequin Pis, an iconic symbol of the city.
Notable universities in Brussels include the French-speaking Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) which is ranked 168= in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings, and the Dutch-speaking Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), ranked 172=. Note that as both of these universities translate into English as the ‘Free University of Brussels’, the translation is rarely used to refer to either university. Other prominent universities in Brussels include Facultés Universitaires Saint-Louis, Hogeschool-Universiteit Brussel and the Royal Military Academy. Several international universities also have campuses in Brussels, including the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies and Boston University Brussels.
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Home to the world’s largest brewer group (Anheuser-Busch InBev), and one of the largest hospitals in Europe (UZ Leuven), Leuven is also known for its notable medieval buildings, annual summer music festival Martrock and its famous Arenberg Orchestra, one of many orchestras based in Leuven. Leuven also has a rich beer culture, with bars offering a wide variety of local and international beers – including one that claims to offer more than 3,000 different beers! Make sure to pay a visit to the Oude Markt and its numerous pubs, bars and cafés, which have earned it the title of the ‘the longest bar in the world’. While you’re there, see if you can spot the nearby Fons Sapientiae, a famous symbol of Leuven’s student city status.
During term-time, at least, students certainly dominate the city center. Leuven is home to the highest ranked Belgian university, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (77 in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings). Also known as KU Leuven or the University of Leuven, this is Belgium’s largest university, with more than 45,800 students. It’s also believed to be not only the oldest university in Belgium, but the world’s oldest Catholic university still in existence.
Other universities in Leuven include the autonomous Vlerick Business School (a management school shared by Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and Ghent University), as well as a number of vocational universities such as the Katholieke Hogeschool Leuven (KH Leuven) and the university college Groep T (Group T) which offers engineering and teaching courses and is well reputed for its adult education. Leuven is also home to one of Belgium’s most famous conservatories, the Lemmens Institute, which is especially well known for its music therapy programs.
Liège is a large industrial city in Wallonia, serving as the region’s principle economic and cultural center. While its main industries are coal, steel and gunsmithing, Liège is also well known for its crowded folk festivals, nightlife, annual jazz festival, alternative cinemas, and for being the host of one of the oldest and biggest Christmas markets in Belgium. The city also boasts one of Europe’s strongest digital, technological and internet-oriented services industries.
Other attractions in Liège include a range of museums, 16th and 17th century architecture, the 400 steps stairway “Montagne de Bueren”, and the Saint Nicholas festival – organized by and for university students, involving dressing up in dirty lab-coats and begging for money for drinks. Liège has a pedestrian zone known locally as ‘The Square’ where you can find plenty of pubs, many of which stay open until 6am – or until the last customer leaves! Liège is also home to a large Italian community, along with large numbers of Moroccan, Algerian, and Turkish immigrants.
The city is a major educational hub, home to over 20,000 students, both local and international. The University of Liège ranked 240= in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings, and other prominent higher educational institutions include the HEC Management School of the University of Liège, ISA Lambert Lombard (the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Liège), the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Liège (arts school offering undergraduate and graduate courses) and La Haute Ecole de la Province de Liège (college providing undergraduate and graduate degrees) among others.
The second-largest city in Belgium, Antwerp is known primarily for four things: famous Flemish painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens, diamonds (more than 70% of all diamonds are traded in Antwerp), fashion (of particular note are the Antwerp Six) and for having the second-largest port in Europe. Antwerp is also known for its range of interesting museums, such as the Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady and the prestigious Royal Fine Art Museum, as well as its many historical buildings from different periods. Even Antwerp Zoo, one of the oldest in the world, boasts impressive 19th century design and architecture.
As you might expect from its strong association with fashion, Antwerp is known as something of a trend-setter. Intellectuals, actors, musicians, writers and painters spend their time in the city’s many fashionable bars, cafés and shops – or, indeed enjoying its flourishing jazz scene. This creative outlet, known as the diamond capital of the world, has bred famous designers such as Ann De Meulemeester, Dirk Bikkemberg and Dries Van Noten, and is home to the impressive MoMu (Mode Museum) fashion museum, MuHKA (the Museum of Contemporary Art) and Antwerp’s largest: Museum aan de Stroom (MAS). Antwerp is also famous for its local products such as Bolleke (an amber beer), Elixir D’Anvers (a locally made liquor), and hand-shaped biscuits (a reflection of local folklore).
Among universities in Antwerp, the most prominent is the University of Antwerp, ranked 185 in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings and, with its 14,000 registered students, the third-largest university in the Flemish region. Antwerp also has several university colleges including Charlemagne University College (Karel de Grote Hogeschool), Plantin University College (Plantijn Hogeschool), and Artesis University College Antwerp.
Bruges is known for being one of the most perfectly preserved medieval cities in Western Europe, and its historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its narrow canals and ancient buildings mean Bruges is sometimes referred to as “The Venice of the North”. The city has many famous buildings and landmarks, including its impressive 13th century belfry. Bruges also has a collection of medieval and early modern art, along with plenty of theaters, concert halls, museums and cinemas. The city is host to a range of cultural, music and food festivals and is the starting town for one of the biggest sporting events in Belgium – the Tour of Flanders cycle race.
While its constant influx of visitors gives Bruges a tourist town feel, there’s plenty for students too. The city is an important center for education, with notable universities in Bruges including the Katholieke Hogeschool Brugge-Oostende (KHBO) and the Hogeschool West-Vlaanderen (HOWEST – Howest University in English). Bruges is also the main campus for the College of Europe, which offers postgraduate studies with a focus on European economics, law and politics. Also based in Bruges is the United Nations University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU-CRIS), a research and training institute of the United Nations University.
Ghent’s combination of well-preserved medieval architecture and Gothic buildings creates a charming cityscape, including a port, network of narrow canals, a wealth of quirky bars and restaurants, lots of fascinating museums (with the top three being SMAK, a Museum of Contemporary Art; STAM, which explores the city’s history; and the Museum voor Schone Kunsten for fine art), a range of turreted cathedrals, and even a castle.
There are several unmissable things in Ghent: the 10-day-long Ghent Festival (bringing in around two million visitors every year); the Zebrestraat (a redeveloped area combining housing, business facilities and cultural initiatives); and the city’s unique food offerings which include a donut-shaped bun called a ‘mastel’, locally produced praline chocolates, cone-shaped purple jelly-filled candies called ‘cuberdons’, and ‘Tierenteyn’ – a hot, refined mustard similar to the French Dijon mustard. The city also promotes a meat-free day on Thursdays called Donderdag Veggiedag, where vegetarian food is foregrounded throughout the city (which, incidentally, has the world’s largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita).
The University of Ghent, one of the larger Flemish universities, is Belgium’s second ranked institution, at 112 in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings. University colleges associated with the University of Ghent include Hogeschool Gent and Hogeschool West-Vlaanderen.
Also of note for students is the city of Louvain-la-Neuve, home to Belgium’s third ranked institution, Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL), 138 in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings. In the Wallonia region, Louvain-la-Neuve was purpose-built to house its university, although recent developments such as the L'Esplanade shopping complex, the Aula Magna exhibition centre and auditorium, and a large cinema complex, have allowed it to grow beyond its academic roots.
See where Brussels ranks in the latest QS Best Student Cities >
In order to apply to study in Belgium at undergraduate level, you must hold a secondary school leaving certificate that is recognized by the relevant authorities, or an equivalence statement for that certificate. There are different authorities to contact for equivalence statements, depending on whether you’re applying to attend a university in the French Community, in the Flemish Community, or in the German-speaking Community.
Applications to study in Belgium are submitted individually to each university, and specific admissions requirements are set by each institution. In general, those wanting to study medicine/dentistry, arts, management and (only in the French Community) engineering sciences must take an entrance exam. You may also need to take an exam to prove your proficiency in French or Dutch. You’ll also need to pay your tuition fees before you can be fully enrolled.
For Belgian students and students from the EU, higher education is financed mostly by the public authorities. Nonetheless, students must pay an annual registration fee, for every year of their studies. The amount varies depending on the higher education institution, the type of program and students’ eligibility for financial aid.
International students from outside the EU may need to pay additional registration fees – again, the amount depends on the chosen institution and degree program. You can obtain specific information about the total fees amount by contacting your chosen institution(s). Tuition fees in Belgium can be as little as €80 (US$108) for a student receiving a bursary, and can reach around €830 (US$1,120) per year for non-bursary students.
Accommodation in Belgium is readily available for short-term or international students; however, if you wish to rent a private flat, it’s often necessary to sign a one-year contract. Expect to pay between €150 (US$200) and €400 (US$540) per month, depending on whether you prefer university housing or private accommodation, and depending on where in Belgium you study.
Home-stays are also popular in Belgium, and give students a chance to learn about Belgian culture first-hand, while possibly improving their language skills. However, this option is more commonly used by short-term students who are, for example, studying in a language school. Contact your university’s student support services or international student department for further information on finding student accommodation in Belgium.
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