01 - Belgium - Historical overview

A concern for political and philosophical balance, on the one hand, and economic necessity, on the other hand, have shaped over the decades the current landscape of tertiary education.

When the independent state of Belgium was created, university education was provided in two State universities in Liège and Ghent (French-speaking at the time), and by the Catholic University of Louvain and the Free University of Brussels.

Originally, the universities prepared students for the professions of engineer, medical doctor, lawyer, historian, etc. Scientific disciplines, although represented from the outset, did not flourish until later. It was not until the 1860s that the first laboratories and research departments were created in the four universities, which often competed against one another in the name of autonomy. The expansion trend intensified in the last quarter of the 19th century: Belgium was the world’s fourth industrial power at the time, and the country’s captains of industry needed more high-calibre management staff. Higher education technical colleges emerged in the coal-mining and metal-industry regions, and the first higher education business schools were created at the turn of the century.

In 1968, regional unilingualism was extended to tertiary education. The most well known illustration was the decision to move the French-speaking section of the Catholic University of Louvain to the Walloon region.

The financing of tertiary education, university and non-university, has been revised over the last few years. Goals common to all types and users of tertiary education and paths for putting these into practice have been discussed in the Council on education and training.

In March 2004, an important decree known as the ‘Bologna Decree’ redefined the whole of higher education in the French Community, with the aim to facilitate its inclusion within the European Higher Education Area. The decree entered into force in September 2004. The same system now applies to the whole of higher education. A number of technical terms were redefined or simplified (e.g. types of degrees), and education was reorganized in three cycles, leading to bachelor, master and doctor degrees (only universities offer 3rd cycle studies). The methods of partnership between universities and other institutes were regulated. The usage of ECTS was confirmed, with one year of study corresponding to 60 ECTS.



A decree, which became partially effective at the beginning of the academic year 1995-1996, regulates university education. It granted increased autonomy to the universities, in particular as regards programme organisation and curricula content, and eliminated the erstwhile distinction between ‘legal’ and ‘scientific’ degrees by establishing a single category of academic degrees.

Recent laws aim to streamline the education offer by limiting the number of basic diplomas and encouraging the versatility of the programmes on offer. Starting in 2002, the federal government has imposed quotas restricting the number of doctors who will be allowed to practice. Medical studies have been reformed accordingly.

The ‘Bologna Decree’ of 31 March 2004 modified the law of 27 July 1971 on the funding and supervision of universities.

Several measures were adopted in order to reduce the number of failures in the first year (currently 60%), and to improve guidance of students during the first years. The cost of failures in the first year of undergraduate studies is estimated at 50 million euros per year.

The decree of 31 March 2004 also includes measures to foster student success. University institutions devolve a sum to aid students in succeeding, either within the institution or through transfer to their academy, equal to at least 10 percent of the basic appropriation that they obtain for each first-generation student enrolled.

The regions are acting to open gateways between the universities and the business environment. For example, the Walloon Region finances research projects developed by universities in economically promising sectors and technology-oriented doctorates and post-doctorates that are useful to enterprises.

In the late nineties, entrance requirements for access to higher education were reviewed. Students who have experienced consecutive failures are no longer eligible for grants. Furthermore, under certain conditions universities may refuse to register students who have obtained several higher education degrees in preceding years.

University degrees were previously divided into two categories: ‘legal’ and ‘scientific’ degrees. ‘Legal’ university degrees were delivered in recognition of studies for which the entrance requirements, curriculum, and duration were established by law. ‘Scientific’ university degrees were delivered in recognition of studies for which the entrance requirements, curriculum, and duration were established directly by the university – without being regulated by law. These were university programmes that were developed in addition to traditional faculties to address new needs not met by studies leading to legal university degrees. These studies were either organised along traditional lines (first cycle university degree, second cycle university degree, doctorate), or they were organised as specialised postgraduate courses. Their designations were particularly varied: certificate, postgraduate certificate, specialisation certificate, postgraduate specialisation certificate, advanced studies certificate, second cycle university degree, special second cycle university degree, etc. From a strictly academic standpoint (content, duration, and level of studies), there was no difference between ‘legal’ university degrees, ‘scientific’ university degrees, and ‘legal’ university degrees conferred as ‘scientific’ credentials. The distinction between ‘legal’ and ‘scientific’ degrees was abolished in 1994.

The ‘Bologna Decree’ that redefines higher education in the French Community as a whole includes measures to refinance the universities.

Hautes Écoles

Before 1990, numerous short-type agricultural, economics and technical programmes leading to a graduat as well as some sections of artistic education were organised as two-year programmes. One of the consequences of the publication of the European directive on the recognition of diplomas earned upon completion of a higher education programme of at least three years (21 December 1988) was the decision by the Ministers of Education to increase all non-university higher education graduatcourses to three years.

An important decree regulating the general organisation of non-university higher education in the hautes écoles was passed on 5 August 1995, becoming effective as of academic year 1996-1997. It brought the following main changes to the structure of non-university higher education.

  • A restructuring of long- and short-type higher educational institutions into thirty multi-category (and/or multi-type) units known as hautes écoles, whose optimized size should enable securing the resources necessary for their mission.
  • A considerable increase in the autonomy of institutions, and an extension of their remit beyond initial training.
  • The introduction of an education quality assessment system.
  • The introduction of a structure enabling students to participate in the administration of the hautes écoles.
  • The creation of specialization diplomas, earned upon completion of further studies after either short- or long-type higher education programmes.

The restructuring was based on a pedagogical plan. The reform aimed to control the cost of higher education and to rationalize the education offer. The ultimate objective is to improve quality consistently with a movement that was already well underway abroad. The reform affected over 65,000 students and some 8,000 teachers and assistants.

In the late 1990s, the conditions governing access to higher education studies were reviewed. Students that have failed time and again can no longer obtain grants. Under certain conditions, the hautes écoles can refuse to admit students who have obtained several higher education diplomas in the preceding years.

The academic degrees awarded by the hautes écoles were established by a decree dated 21 February 2003, completed and updated by a further decree dated 2 June 2006.


Art colleges

Two decrees dated 17 May 1999 and 20 December 2001 provided the framework for education given in the art colleges, which is henceforth part of higher education. Since 1999, higher artistic education is organized in five domains, of which four are structured:

  • Plastic, visual and spatial arts
  • Music
  • Theatre and vocal arts
  • Performing arts and communication and broadcasting techniques.

There are 17 art colleges today.


Architecture colleges

Pursuant to a law of 1977 and measures taken in application of this law, architecture was already a university-level higher education programme comprising 5 years of study. Some modifications were made to its organisation in 2004, with a view to favouring its inclusion within the European Higher Education Area.

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Date: 2009
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