There are many reasons 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.
If you’re keen to spend time studying in Belgium, click on the tabs below for information about top universities in Belgium, popular student cities, and what steps to take next.
Many universities in Belgium have a strong international outlook and composition, as well as a strong position in the international rankings. A total of eight universities in Belgium are featured in the QS World University Rankings® 2016-2017, all but one of which is ranked within the global top 350 (the University of Mons is a new entry this year in the 501-550 band).
Higher education in Belgium is generally categorized into the country’s two main language communities: the Flemish (a variety of Dutch) Community and the French Community. Alongside Dutch and French, Germany is also an official language of the country, though spoken by a far smaller percentage of the population. German-speaking students typically attend a university in the French Community, or travel to study in Germany. While French and Dutch are the standard languages of teaching, there are also many international programs taught in English.
Higher education institutions in Belgium include 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 Royal Military Academy.
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’ or an ‘academic bachelor’. The first of these has a vocational element, while the second is more academic and designed to prepare students for 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.
The top five universities in Belgium are:
The highest-ranked Belgian university is KU Leuven, ranked 79th in the world as of the 2016-2017 edition. Translated into English, its name is ‘Catholic University of Leuven’ but it’s more often referred to by its Dutch name. It was Belgium’s first university, founded in 1425 (although it was closed during the Napoleonic period and reopened in 1834). KU Leuven taught around 57,300 students in 2015, making it the largest university in Belgium.
Ranked joint 131st in the world, the University of Ghent was established in 1817 as the first Dutch-speaking university in Belgium. The university ranks 90th in world for life sciences, and 27th for veterinary science. It’s another large university, teaching around 41,000 students in 11 faculties.
The Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL) is Belgium’s largest French-speaking university, and is located in Louvain-la-Neuve, a planned city which was built to house the university. UCL has satellite campuses in Brussels, Charleroi, Mons and Tournai. It currently ranks at 154th in the world, and performs particularly well (29th) in the subject ranking for statistics.
Ranked 182nd in the world, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) was formed when the Université Libre de Bruxelles split in 1970. Both universities have the same name when translated into English (Free University of Brussels), so both avoid this version to prevent confusion. VUB is known for its high research activity, with its research teams internationally recognized in many disciplines of fundamental and applied research.
The Universite Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) ranks joint 216th in the QS World University Rankings 2016-2017, and claims Belgium’s strongest scores for internationalization – around a third of its students and faculty members come from abroad. It was founded in 1834 and is a highly respected research university, with three Nobel Prize winners, one Fields Medal, three Wolf Prizes, and two Marie Curie Prizes.
Find out more about life in Belgium’s major student cities…
French: Bruxelles; Dutch: Brussel
Belgium’s capital has 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 organizations including 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.
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’ – the latter are historic, covered shopping streets. Although smaller than most European capitals, cosmopolitan and multilingual Brussels offers plenty in the way of culture and recreation.
Notable universities in Brussels include the Dutch-speaking Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), ranked 182nd in the QS World University Rankings® 2016-2017, and the French-speaking Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) which is ranked joint 216th. 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.
French: Louvain; Dutch: Leuven
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. The city also has a rich beer culture, with bars offering a wide variety of local and international varieties – including one bar 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 (fountain of wisdom), a famous symbol of Leuven’s student city status.
During term-time, students are a major presence in the city. Leuven is home to the highest-ranked Belgian university, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (currently 79th in the QS World University Rankings). Also known as KU Leuven or the University of Leuven, this is Belgium’s largest university, with more than 57,300 students. It’s also believed to be the oldest university in Belgium, and 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. 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.
French: Liège; Dutch: Luik
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 hosting 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-step 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 is ranked joint 315th in the QS World University Rankings 2016-2017, and is also known for its HEC Management School. Other prominent higher educational institutions in Liège include 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).
French: Anvers; Dutch: Antwerpen
The second-largest city in Belgium, Antwerp is well-known for 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. The city also offers a range of interesting attractions, including the Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady and the prestigious Royal Fine Art Museum, as well as 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 trendy bars, cafés and shops – or, indeed enjoying its flourishing jazz scene. Antwerp is also famous for local products such as Bolleke (an amber beer), Elixir D’Anvers (a locally made liquor), and hand-shaped biscuits (connected to local folklore).
Among universities in Antwerp, the most prominent is the University of Antwerp, ranked 209th in the QS World University Rankings and, with 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.
French: Bruges; Dutch: Brugge
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 an 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.
French: Gand; Dutch: Gent
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.
The University of Ghent, one of the larger Flemish universities, is Belgium’s second-highest ranked institution, at joint 131st in the QS World University Rankings 2016-2017. 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), 154th in the QS World University Rankings 2016/17. 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 center and auditorium, and a large cinema complex, have allowed it to grow beyond its academic roots.
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 and other EU students, higher education is financed mostly by the state. 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.
Tuition fees in Belgium also differ depending on whether the program is offered by an institution in the Flemish, German-speaking, or French community. Students from the EU will pay a maximum of €835 (~US$910) per year, while international students from outside the EU will pay €835-4,175 (~US$910-4,560) and may need to pay additional registration fees – again, the amount depends on the institution and program. You can obtain specific information about the total fees amount by contacting your chosen institution(s).
University accommodation in Belgium is often 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 you study in Belgium. If you rent your own one-bed apartment, this is likely to cost around €675 (~US$740) per month in a city center, or €500 (~US$550) outside the center.
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.