Learn About Flanders, In Flanders!

MAY 11, 2012 

By David Baeckelandt

As a young Flemish-American growing up in Chicago I earnestly wished to study in the country where my father and grandfather were born. Unfortunately I was unable to find any such program in Flanders or Belgium at the time, and neither did I find any opportunities to study about Flanders as an undergraduate here in the U.S. As a result, I ended up studying abroad in Asia. While not a bad career move, I would have much preferred a chance to study in and about Flanders. Today’s North American students, however, have more options. While still not plentiful, there are now several paths open to aspiring or current college students to enroll at academic institutions in Flanders. There are also foundations being laid for an exciting new channel for study about Flanders in the United States.


Unique features

It is important to understand some unique features about education in Belgium. Did you know that Flanders has had a continuous university present for nearly 600 years? The Catholic University at Leuven (KUL) was first established in 1425. That tradition has enabled Flanders’ universities to rank among the top universities in Europe and the world.

Belgium, as you may be aware, has a unique structure. A federal state, it consists of three “Communities” based on language (Dutch, French, and German) and three “Regions” (Flanders, Brussels, and Wallonia) based upon territorial boundaries. Each Community and Region is constitutionally allowed a parliament (although the Dutch and Flemish parliaments were early on combined into one). These parliaments – which are in addition to, and not subordinate to the Belgian Parliament – govern specific “competencies” for their respective constituencies. Education is a competency of the “Community”. Thus, if you have an interest in studying in Belgium, you will need to determine which Community you wish to study in before pursuing your educational dreams there.

Flanders has six universities and more than twenty colleges. These universities are world-class institutions and are located in Brussels (Vrije Universiteit Brussel & Hogeschool-Universiteit Brussel), Leuven (KUL), Ghent (Universiteit Gent), Antwerp (Universiteit Antwerpen), and Hasselt (Universiteit Hasselt) in Limburg. KULAK, a branch of KUL located in Kortrijk, features a complete university campus in West Flanders. The twenty-plus colleges and other “institutions of higher learning” are spread across the country with some located in smaller cities such as Bruges and Ostend.

For Americans and Canadians aspiring to study in Flanders, it is important to realize that whatever path pursued, one needs to apply for both admission to the academic program and legal permission to reside in Flanders.


How to study in Flanders

Currently, there are three paths to undergraduate study in Flanders:

a)      Enroll at a Flemish University (instruction in Dutch, which requires proficiency in Dutch);
b)      Enroll at an International University in Brussels (instruction in English);
c)      Study Abroad at a Flemish University (instruction in English);

To study at a Flemish University in Dutch, the path is relatively straightforward. One applies directly to the school. But what if you do not have adult proficiency in Dutch? Vesalius College is one option. Originally established as a joint effort between Boston College and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, today it is a distinct school in association with the VUB. Located across the street from the VUB’s main entrance, it follows a North American curriculum with instruction in English. Its more than 300 students hail from more than 45 countries. Tuition per semester is 5,400 Euro (about $7,000). Vesalius estimates additional costs of approximately 6,000 Euro ($8,000) per semester.

Many Flemish universities also offer intensive language courses during the summer vacation (July-August) to prepare foreign students for the coming academic year. And, by the way, Ph.D. candidates in various fields have been able to do their research and write their dissertations in English for decades.

Another option for English speakers are the study-abroad programs offered by American universities. In the past, these were largely individual-driven. Nowadays many schools, among them the University of Illinois, have group programs. Moreover, the University of Illinois has opened their program to any North American student – one need not be a student at their Urbana-Champaign campus. U of IL pegs tuition per semester at nearly $8,000 and estimates the costs of living in Leuven at approximately $5,000 per semester.



Rarely do today’s students attend universities without some financial assistance. Thankfully, there are a variety of funding sources for students of these programs.A person who has resided for two years continuously in Flanders may apply for financial aid from Flemish government entities. Or, if you are an American with language skills in any of the official languages of Belgium (Dutch, French, German) and have already been accepted to a Belgian university, you may apply for a scholarship with the Belgian American Educational Foundation in New York City. Since its founding in the 1930s, more than 900 Americans have received scholarships from the BAEF. This year alone nine Americans (and 81 Belgians) received one of these scholarships.

Vesalius College and the University of Illinois both count as accredited schools and so standard paths for U.S. educational aid (including GI Bill funding) are open to their students.

In addition, while the scope of this is unclear, scholarships may be available through other sources. Some Belgian Clubs in the U.S. sponsor scholarships for members’ children (a list of the Belgian Clubs in the U.S. can be found here: http://www.diplobel.us/BelgianCitizens/ClubsAssociations.asp).


Flemish and Dutch Studies in the U.S.

Few U.S. universities offer anything in the way of Flemish studies. The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is a notable exception. Dutch language studies are offered in areas with an important ethnic-Dutch population, such as Grand Rapids, Michigan.

While this remains a drawing-board concept for now, the University of Illinois has initiated discussions about establishing a dedicated curriculum offering Dutch language, Flemish culture and history, which would be unique in the United States.

In part to support such an endeavor, several Flemish-Americans recently established the Flemish American Heritage Foundation. The FAHF’s mission includes (among other things) funding scholarships for Flemish Studies. Those interested in the FAHF can contact me directly at debendevan@hotmail.com



Today’s students have a plethora of opportunities to learn more about Flanders and Belgium. Programs today also permit American students to study in Flanders without acquiring Dutch proficiency. Future programs may even give Flemish-American students to major in the study of their ancestral homeland right here in the U.S.A. Truly, Flemish studies have come a long way.




Study in Belgium: http://www.belgium.be/en/education/coming_to_study_in_belgium/
Studying in Flanders: http://www.studyinflanders.be/
Studying in Brussels: http://www.brussels.irisnet.be/education-and-training/home/3/1/studying-in-brussels-as-a-foreign-student


Studying Dutch in Flanders:

List of Universities in Flanders: http://www.studyinflanders.be/en/institutions/universities/
List of Colleges in Flanders: http://www.studyinflanders.be/en/institutions/university-colleges/


Specific Programs

University of Illinois Study Abroad at KU Leuven: https://app.studyabroad.illinois.edu/index.cfm?FuseAction=programs.ViewProgram&Program_ID=10839
Vesalius College: http://www.vesalius.edu/
Scholarships for Graduate Study in Belgium
Belgian American Educational Foundation: http://www.baef.us
Flemish Government Scholarships & Grants Program: web http://www.ond.vlaanderen.be/english


Flemish University Associations

Antwerp University Association: http://www.associatie-antwerpen.be
Brussels University Association: http://www.universitaireassociatiebrussel.be
Ghent University Association: http://www.augent.be
K.U.Leuven Association: http://www.associatie.kuleuven.be
Limburg University Association: http://www.auhl.be

Other organizations:

The accreditation body for higher education programmes in Flanders and the Netherlands: http://www.nvao.nl
Recognition of foreign degrees (NARIC-Flanders): http://www.ond.vlaanderen.be/naric/
Flemish Interuniversity Council (VLIR): http://www.vlir.be
Flemish Interuniversity Council, secretariat for University Cooperation for Development (VLIR-UOS): http://www.vliruos.be
Council of Flemish University Colleges (VLHORA): http://www.vlhora.be