Disclaimer: I am not a Belgian citizen. I have, however, been living in Belgium for about four years now, and I have experienced life both as a student and as a working person. I therefore think I am well within my rights to write an article saying why you should or shouldn’t study in Belgium’s de facto student city, what you should look out for.
When asked about where they would like to study abroad – a question OneEurope’s community management team asked recently on Twitter -, not that many people will answer Belgium. According to statistics, foreign students (in particular, Erasmus ones) seem to prefer sunnier venues in Spain and Italy, or countries renowned for their universities such as England or France. And yet Leuven, Belgium’s student city par excellence, remains a melting pot of students from all over the world, hosting as many as 9,913 international students in 2014/2015. They might not seem that many when compared to the number of students that, say, London hosts, but it does make a difference in a city that isn’t exactly big. What makes it so attractive?
I can’t obviously speak for every single international student that ever set foot in Leuven but, as a former Master student of Catholic University of Leuven, in Dutch - Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, (KUL). I would like to share my experience about what made it so unique and worthwhile for me, and the things that could and definitely should be improved to make one’s experience more memorable.
KUL’s approach to globalisation – Although only a handful of Bachelor degrees are available in a language other than Dutch, KUL has a wide range of Master, PhD and post-doc programmes taught in English, undoubtedly with the intent to gather more international attention and provide more complete “learning and sharing experiences” to its students. Economics and Life Sciences courses are particularly popular among foreigners. Although, I never took part in the Erasmus experience, I have friends who did and can guarantee that, if that’s your case, a course in English will be available even for Dutch-taught programmes.
Learning Dutch has never been so easy… in theory (see below for practicalities) – Language courses are provided in a great number of programmes and, if not, the university’s language center provides Dutch (or any other language) weekly classes for rather small fee – even for those who are not students.
KUL’s ranking – it’s not Cambridge or La Sorbonne, but it’s still ranked among the top 100 world universities and its R&I endeavours are extremely high-rated.
Girl next door… to Brussels – If, like me, you’re an EU lover or just someone who wants to work abroad and is dreaming about starting a career in Brussels, then Leuven is the perfect place to be. It only takes 20 minutes by train to reach Belgium’s capital for a public hearing, an European Parliament session, a drink at Place du Luxembourg for some networking or for an internship/job interview.
We are what we eat – and you will know you’re truly a student in Belgium when you find yourself addicting to their fries (never call them French!), waffles, stoemp, chocolate and never ending variety of beer!
It’s a small world after all – Belgium is a small country with a rather good transport network. You will reach wherever you want in less than 2h, be it Ghent, Brugges, Antwerp or the Ardennes. The ticket prices are fairly cheap when compared to other European countries, and for 50 euros you can buy a Go-Pass with 10 trips, making each one only 5 euros. Similarly, it is within small distance of France, Germany, Netherlands, Luxembourg and the UK. Put on your backpack and enjoy your trip!
It’s cheap – It was not my main reason for studying there, but it’s one of the most popular ones you will get out of any international student. Student fees are incredibly low when comparing to universities in other countries – as low as 600 euros per year.
The Leuven way – There is no way to really describe the Leuven experience unless you live it. The evenings at the Oude Markt sharing a beer with your classmates, the cantus activities, the sports events…
Accommodation – a touchy subject, but the most pressing issue for me. If you’re set about studying in Leuven, start looking for accommodation even before you have your acceptance letter if you ever hope to find an inhabitable room. The city is rather small for such a high number of students (57.267 in 2014/2015), which makes for a shortage in accommodation. As a result of this, you will find less-than-stellar kots (slang for student room) which are extremely overpriced. Landlords do this because they know, sooner or later, someone will take the room. At the same time, some of them like to charge foreign students extra costs for staying over the weekend on the basis that “Belgian students always go back home” (what if they don’t?). As a student city, it is quite difficult to find accommodation for working people since places for students get a tax reduction.
Weekends – As I’ve said before, the country is small and public transports are cheap enough for national students to go home on the weekends. As a result, most places in Leuven tend to close during that time, which can make the city a bit of a ghost town. Then again, you can just take that opportunity to actually study or to travel a bit!
The weather – Yes, rain and occasional snow cannot really hold up against sunny Barcelona or Rome. Unless you’re a rain lover, you’ll have to make your peace with it (in my opinion, it is worth it).
Practicalities of practicing your Dutch – Belgians are so genuinely nice that when they detect the slightest trace of an accent, they will automatically switch to English for your benefit. It may seem as a benefit when you’re new in town and sort of lost, not so great when you are learning Dutch and want to practice it.
I hope I’ve made you start browsing and packing!