Free University of Brussels

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This article is about the Free University of Brussels before its split in 1969. For the current Dutch-speaking university, see Vrije Universiteit Brussel. For the French-speaking university, see Université Libre de Bruxelles.
The clock tower of the Free University of Brussels', now the Université Libre de Bruxelles', campus in Solbosch, built in the 1920s

The Free University of Brussels (French: Université Libre de Bruxelles) was a university in Brussels, Belgium established in 1834. The university, founded on the principle of secularism by Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen and Auguste Baron in 1834, formed part of a reaction to Catholic dominance in Belgian education. In 1969, during the Linguistic Wars, it split into two separate universities: the French-speaking Université Libre de Bruxelles (known as ULB) and the Dutch-speaking Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB).

The two universities continue to collaborate, and are together referred to as the Brussels Free Universities.


Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen, a free-mason and notable proponent of the university's original establishment

When the nine provinces that broke away from the United Netherlands formed a single, independent Belgian state in 1830, there were three state universities in the country: at Ghent, Liège and Leuven. Even though Brussels had been promoted to the rank of capital, it still had no university. For this reason, in 1831 a group of leading Brussels Masonic figures in the fields of the arts, science and education set themselves the objective of creating a university for the city. They had the choice between a state university and, failing that, a private institution, since the Belgian Constitution, the most liberal in Europe, allowed for this possibility.

Finding the financial burden of the three existing universities too onerous, the Belgian government showed little enthusiasm for yet another state university. However, when in 1834 the episcopate decided to found the Catholic University of Mechlin, things began to happen very quickly. The liberal professions and Freemasons, led by Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen and Auguste Baron, who were promoting the Brussels university project, stepped up their efforts, with the result that the Free University of Brussels inaugurated its first academic year on 20 November 1834. This day, called St V is still celebrated today. After sufficient funding was collected among advocates, the Free University of Brussels was inaugurated on 20 November 1834, in the Gothic room of the city hall of Brussels. After its establishment, the Free University of Brussels faced difficult times, since it did receive no subsidies or grants from the government; yearly fundraising events and tuition fees provided the only financial means. Verhaegen, who became a professor and later head of the new university, gave it a mission statement which he summarized in a speech to King Leopold I: the principle of "free inquiry" and academic freedom uninfluenced by any political or religious authority.[1]

The university's football team won the bronze medal at the 1900 Summer Olympics. Since 1935 some courses have been taught in both French and Dutch, but it was only in 1963 that all faculties held courses in both languages. During World War II, a resistance group, Groupe G, was formed among students at the university.

Splitting of the university[edit]

The Dutch-language Vrije Universiteit Brussel moved to a new campus as a result of the split

In the nineteenth century, courses at the Free University of Brussels were taught exclusively in French, the language of the upper class in Belgium at that time. However, with the Dutch-speaking population asking for more rights in Belgium, some courses were already taught in Dutch at the Faculty of Law as early as 1935. Nevertheless, it was not until 1963 that all faculties offered their courses in Dutch.[2] On 1 October 1969, the university was finally split in two sister institutions: the French-speaking Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and the Dutch-speaking Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). This splitting became official by the law of 28 May 1970, of the Belgian parliament, by which the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the Université Libre de Bruxelles became two separate legal entities.[3] Some argue that ULB came off better; it is higher ranked in most international rankings (201-225, World University Rankings 2014-5[4]), and has kept most of the historic buildings in Solbosch, as well as developing a modern science campus along Pleinlaan in Etterbeek (Campus de la Pleine). VUB, on the other hand, started afresh and its smaller campus footprint, right next to the ULB science campus, and is dominated by concrete buildings built in the 1970s, and now decaying. The fact that most of its academic staff publish and can teach in English has given it an edge in some areas, but its ranking is lower (351-400, World University Rankings 2014-5). Undergraduate and some postgraduate teaching is in Dutch.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Witte, Els (eds.) (1996). Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen (1796–1862). 'VUB'Press (in Dutch) (Brussels). ISBN 90-5487-140-7. 
  2. ^ "About the University: Culture and History". Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Retrieved 25 November 2007. 
  3. ^ "Law of 28 May 1970, concerning the splitting of the universities in Brussels and Leuven" (in Dutch). Belgisch Staatsblad/Flemish Government. Retrieved 25 November 2007. 
  4. ^
  5. ^