The Brussels School of Governance (BSoG) is an academic project that looks to set the standard for higher education in Brussels. Tapping into the high concentration of politically relevant actors in the city, the BSoG hopes to become a reference point for courses on European and international governance and security, and also offers courses on law and business. Attending the BSoG comes at the price of 13.000 euros per academic year, a steep increase from the rates of Belgian subsidised education. Overall, the BSoG is an added value to the university’s education profile, but its strengths in efficiency and student engagement put a spotlight on how the VUB is lacking these qualities for its own students.
Text: Filip Lismont
Image: Andreas Lorrain
To find out more about the BsoG and what it means for our university, de Moeial spoke to its two vice-deans: Alexander Mattelaer and Sven Van Kerckhoven. Professor Alexander Mattelaer teaches at the VUB, with a stint at the Vesalius College earlier in his career. Professor Sven Van Kerckhoven departs primarily from the Vesalius College, having previously served as head of its department of business and economics. Both professors hold leading positions at the Institute for European Studies (IES), indicating that the cooperative project of BSoG does not come out of the blue.
The Brussels School of Governance stems from an already longstanding cooperation between the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the Vesalius College, and Professor Mattelaer indicates that the cooperation between Vesalius and the VUB goes way back. “The two institutions have been physically occupying the same building and exchanging staff for many years. The names differ, but the two were never truly separate to begin with.”
The origin point of the BSoG was Caroline Pauwels’ all-encompassing vision at the start of her tenure as Rector of the VUB. Mattelaer recalls “she intended to combat the fragmentation that she saw between the VUB and VUB-associated institutions.” In 2017 Luc Soete was tasked with compiling a report on how to best address this fragmentation, the resultant advice being to bundle VUB-affiliated entities that were slowly diverging. “Now, years later, Luc is the Dean of the BSoG and Sven and I are Vice-Deans”, Mattelaer notes.
The connection we have with the VUB will enable us to share the knowledge and expertise we generate at the BSoG.
Sven Van Kerckhoven
The BSoG is an autonomous initiative with its own leadership structure, but holds close links with its parent institutions. While in its infancy, the BSoG still leans on much of the VUB and VeCo’s infrastructure; a dependence that will hopefully grow to benefit all parties involved rather than serve as a stepping stone for the BSoG’s rise to prominence. Both Vice-Deans indicate that such spillovers to the VUB are not only possible, but very likely.
Van Kerckhoven puts forward two potential benefits. Firstly: “the BSoG forces itself to be at the forefront of education, research and innovation. If you look at how we were able to transition to online learning compared to public universities, there is a massive difference. The connection we have with the VUB will enable us to share the knowledge and expertise we generate at the BSoG.” This does not only apply to digital learning; research and teaching practice will most likely also be shared across institutional lines. Secondly: “the idea is to form a single hub that brings together much of the VUB’s international outreach in research terms as well as the segment of non subsidised education. This will help to place the BSoG – and the VUB by extension – as a focal point for the big governance challenges of our time.”
The city of Brussels is host to an immense concentration of globally relevant political and societal actors. Colloquially known as ‘the Capital of the European Union’, it also harbours the NATO headquarters and is scattered with embassies and international NGO’s. It is no surprise then that governance oriented academic initiatives are so commonplace here. The VUB offers its own English-language, governance-oriented tracks, but also has different satellite projects such as the IES, the Brussels Diplomatic Academy and now the BSoG in collaboration with VeCo. There is also the ULB, Saint-Louis and Kent; even the KU Leuven is setting up shop right in the center of the city.
The BSoG has a big role to play in strengthening the VUB’s position in this increasingly saturated market, although there is a legitimate worry that the VUB might be boosting the BSoG to a position where it diminishes the value of the VUB’s own internationally oriented courses. Mattelaer downplays this concern: “The BSoG is not competing with the VUB, UGent or KULeuven, but with the Hursty school in Berlin, the LSE in London and other entities in that category where the pricing system is based on the private model.”
The traditional university model is going through a shock. Digitalisation forces universities to adapt their role.
The acknowledgement here is that privatised academic institutions with high tuition fees and a drive towards excellence are unavoidable, and that it is best for the VUB to have a seat at that table rather than being in full competition with privatised institutions that come to capitalise on Brussels’ political relevance. Professor Van Kerckhoven adds that the project is “especially focused on combining the international outreach of the VUB and VeCo”, and that “more can be achieved together than separately”. Still, questions remain regarding the BSoG’s effects on similar courses given at the VUB, and whether creating new, more prestigious, initiatives creates an internal hierarchy among VUB-affiliated institutions.
A large part of forming a cohesive academic network is the building of societal relevance, a key point brought forward by Caroline Pauwels in her speech given at the BSoG launch event. Measuring societal relevance is not straightforward, and an academic institution’s way of doing so usually depends on its own strengths and goals.
“Relevance is what people in society decide to make relevant by flocking to it, and that’s why we tend to put a lot of emphasis on the networking role”, Mattelaer argues. “Universities are in the business of knowledge management; they expand knowledge through research and pass it on to the next generation through educational programmes. That traditional model is going through a seismic shock due to digitalisation as well as other matters. As a consequence, the information space has exploded, forcing universities to adapt their approach and re-cherish their deep role as forums that distinguish between what matters, and what matters not so much.”
Witnessing all the perks of attending the BSoG is confronting when considering that internship opportunities, student-teacher interactions and administrative efficiencies at the VUB itself are reducing rather than improving.
The world is changing at an unprecedented pace. This acknowledgment might be increasingly cliché, but that does not make it less truthful. Adapting to a changing global climate is at the core of effective governance, and that adaptability will be a cornerstone of the BSoG’s educational profile. It’s streamlined institutional structure means curriculum-shaping and teaching practice will be more reflexive to current priorities and challenges. Professor Van Kerckhoven underscores this by saying the BSoG is required to “function in an efficient, business-like manner. It forces us to ensure that everything we offer is relevant and updated. We constantly look for opportunities and address challenges. It requires us to be sharp and mean, since we need to be able to move rather quickly.”
Every student counts
Top-notch higher education in today’s world is not just about choosing what information to prioritise, it is also about accommodating a smooth transition into the professional landscape. One of the most important benefits of attending the BSoG is it’s assurance of “a variety of internship opportunities with prestigious and internationally renowned organisations, NGO’s, think tanks and international corporations,” as promoted on the BSoG’s website. This access is provided to translate students’ academic experience into skills and knowledge that have impact in a professional environment. Internships aid the transition of skills from academic to professional environments, and help build networks as well as a CV that is attractive to future employers. Another advantage of the privatised model of higher education is the individual attention that students at the BSoG receive. With a maximum class size of 30, students can enjoy closer interaction with their teachers.
The BSoG is due to have a significant effect on elevating the VUB’s stature in the global academic climate, and much thought – 3 years at least – has gone into how this can be achieved. But for VUB students, the gains will seem marginal. And witnessing all the perks of attending the BSoG is confronting when considering that internship opportunities, student-teacher interactions and administrative efficiencies at the VUB itself are reducing rather than improving. This being said, the emergence of the BSoG is not an immediate disadvantage to VUB students. But it begs for an investigation into why the VUB – as such an experienced institution – cannot evolve to provide the same benefits for its students. Why does a separate school with higher tuition fees need to emerge to provide what the VUB should strive for itself?
Belgian society and politics lay much importance on broad and open access to education. By pulling as many people as possible towards attending higher education, funds are diluted and distributed widely across the large university infrastructure.
To combat the reality that high tuition fees for better quality education cause a reproduction of socio-economic inequality, the BSoG offers a fifty percent reduction in tuition fees for students that show excellent results and are engaged in extra-curriculars. This reduction still makes the tuition fees stand at a high 6.500 euro, a price that academic excellence often does not make up for. Especially when you take into account that many excellent students at the VUB already require financial assistance. Mattelaer admits that “although the BSoG does offer waivers, the majority of students will be paying much higher fees. The private market of education remains more accessible to students with the financial means to pay for it. But you know and you see what you get.”
The cost of learning
The point that “every student counts” at the BSoG is made repeatedly, a reminder that students are faces with a future, not numbers in a system. This is in stark contrast to the increasingly impersonal engagement experienced at the VUB by students and teachers alike. “The faculty system – which is still less profound at the VUB than at other institutions – results increasingly in very large study groups, a supposed industrial model of higher education”, Mattelaer highlights. “From a quality point of view, this is not ideal. The student-to-staff ratio has been evolving in a direction that is putting more stress on the system. Student numbers have grown, but staff numbers have not grown (in proportion).”
Belgian society and politics lay much importance on broad and open access to education. By pulling as many people as possible towards attending higher education, funds are diluted and distributed widely across the large university infrastructure. In the Belgian context, “the subsidised section of higher education is the main game in town. So that is not going anywhere,” assures Mattelaer.
The BSoG detaches itself from the subsidised model of most Belgian academic institutions. The differences and discrepancies between subsidised and private higher education are known. Most striking however, are the similarities between the two. Mattelaer says that “even though the pricing structure for the students is very different, the actual cost is the same. The question is not the cost, the question is who pays for it: the state or the student.”
The VUB has done well to ensure it has a voice in the circles of privatised academia, but must acknowledge its responsibility is to its own students first of all.
At the VUB, the Flemish government subsidises around ninety percent of operating costs for students from within the European Economic Area(EEA) and around sixty-five percent for students outside the EEA. Hence, while the tuition fees at the BSoG are set at around 13.000 euros per year compared to around 1000 euros for EEA students and 4000 euros for non-EEA students at the VUB, the operating cost per student is very similar.
This of course begs the question: where are all these resources going if not towards the improvement of education overall? The increasing size of an institution inevitably raises its costs, but a larger group of students with the same cost per student also allows larger-scale, more impactive investments that yield more bang for your buck as total funds increase.
The technicalities of the supposed industrialisation of education warrant an article in itself, but Mattelaer’s attempt to summarise it is that “mechanical calculations of student acceptance and tuition fees are geared towards the organisational costs of sustaining the institution. For every student enrolled, there is a lump sum of taxpayer money that goes to the faculty, but the university as a whole takes a significant portion of that money.” The university absorbs much of the funding and is tasked with providing added value for all students at the university, while faculties are left lacking resources for the amount of students they support.
Scaling at the expense of quality
Issues of scaling do eventually result from the will to provide as many people as possible with the opportunity to follow higher education, a stance that should be praised rather than ridiculed. But this does not mean that festering sores in the use of resources should be glazed over, neither should the VUB surrender to the reigning issues of bad administration and staff shortages. Instead, it should work on improving the efficiency of its administration and use of resources without relying on privatised leadership.
The BSoG has the potential to support the VUB’s brand on the world stage, and this partnership should be cherished and built on. But the VUB would be naïve to think that its students are directly helped by such initiatives. The VUB has done well to ensure it has a voice in the circles of privatised academia, but must acknowledge its responsibility is to its own students first of all.