This article was written originally in English.
The past monday 29 of October of 2018, the student representation (“stura” or “studentenraad”) of KU Leuven organised an “assembly for international students” (“AFIS”), along with LOKO (the umbrella organisation of all students in Leuven) and Pangaea (the social centre for international students at KU Leuven). Around 30 international students were present at the event. The first half of the event, that lasted in total around 4 hours, was dedicated to listen the general concerns of the international students, and the second half was dedicated to discuss the problem of the rise of tuition fees for the students that are not citizens of the European Economic Area (in this article referred henceforth as “non-EEA students”, and commonly denominated as “non European students”).
They started this discussion by giving a presentation of the facts known to them about this issue. They said that in the year 2014 some changes in the legislature of the university were made that allowed each of the faculties to rise the tuition fees for non-EEA students, if they want, under the condition of using the additional budget earned from the increase to improve the support for the non-EEA students in aspects such as the study career, the student services, the international offices, and the psychosocial wellbeing. Some groups of non-EEA students should not be affected by the rise: the students that have resided already more than 2 years in Belgium, the students that were already enrolled in KU Leuven before the increase, and the students that come from developing countries. Also they should state some cases in which the tuition fee can be waived (for example, saying that the students with the highest grades are exempt from paying the increased registration fee).
Since this change was made, many faculties have been increasing their tuition fees for non-EEA students, and some faculties even started their new programmes with the fees increased since the beginning (such as the Faculty of Letters with its new programme of Master in History and its fee of €3500 for non-EEA students). Nevertheless there are some faculties that are strongly opposed to the increase of tuition fees for non-EEA students, such as the Faculty of Theology and the Faculty of Canon Law, despite the enormous proportion of international students registered at them; this reveals that the increase in tuition fees might be more related to the attitudes and the ideologies of the current authorities of the faculties, than to a true economical necessity.
They said that little is known, and little can be inquired, about how exactly each faculty spends the money obtained from the tuition fees, because faculties are not obligated to reveal what they are doing with their budget. It is only known that per each student registered the European Union pays some quantity of money to the university, and that if a faculty decides to increase the tuition fees for certain students then that faculty gets less of the central funding of KU Leuven per each of these certain students.
The tuition fees for the Erasmus Mundus programmes are determined in a different manner, because they are made in association with other universities and therefore the other university may be the one requesting the higher tuition fees for non-EEA students.
Later they proceeded to explain the structure of their organisations and what a student can do to make a change at the university:
- A student shall inform about his concern to his programme representation or to his faculty representation (they are usually the same student association), preferably during the open student meetings that these student associations should organise every two weeks.
- This local student association will inquire the issue more and discuss it, and if it agrees on some conclusion it will proceed to inform LOKO or the Studentenraad about the issue and its position.
- LOKO and the Studentenraad shall further research the issue, discuss it, and ponder it considering the position of the other local student associations.
- If a position is agreed then they will proceed to inform about it and defend it at the meetings they have with the authorities. The Studentenraad takes charge of the issues related related to the educational and the institutional policy, and LOKO takes charge of the issues related to the local policy of Leuven.
- It is through the discussions in this meetings with the authorities that a change in the central policy of KU Leuven is achieved.
However they insisted in saying that given that the current policy of KU Leuven is to give each faculty the freedom to determine its tuition fees, the fight against the increase in tuition fees should be made locally at each faculty by its own students.
This was received with heavy criticism from many of the students present at the event, who argued that this would not happen if KU Leuven got rid of that so called freedom and centrally forbade the increased tuition fees, and that it was shown that the Studentenraad could be actively fighting against it. However the Studentenraad said that that is not its current position and that just hearing the complaining of the present students was not enough to change it because it was required to follow the whole procedure they mentioned for them to be sure that they are truly representing democratically the general position of the majority of students at KU Leuven. The only current position actively defended by the Studentenraad is that the education should be more open, which means that there should be more democratic participation and transparency in the design, decision and application of the educational policies of the university.
Yet they said that if the majority of students complained about the tuition fees, they would be on the side of the students and would actively fight against them.
«We can make a change, first we try to do it at the table, but if it does not work, we would take it to the streets» —Robbe Van Hoof, president of the student representation of KU Leuven.
They said that if the local student associations do complain about the tuition fees and it is made evident that the majority of students is against them, for example by making polls, they would first try to go through the established democratic process and discuss with the authorities of the university the change to the policies, and if the authorities ignored them then they would protest and take more militant actions against this, although if the authorities did not ignored them but demonstrated that it is not economically feasible, then they would accept authorities’ decision and would rather discuss alternative changes to relieve the problem.
They said that they know that the militant protesting is an option they have but that they choose to follow the established process, and that they only have recurred to protesting when the authorities have ignored them, like last semester when they protested in the street against a reform of the academic calendar. Some students present criticised that somehow it seemed easy for them to protest against that issue but it seems extremely difficult and hard for them to reach that level of attention and compromise with the issue of the tuition fees.
A student suggested them to perform a general poll among all the students of KU Leuven but the Studentenraad argued that that was too hard for them and that each student association should make its own and take a decision. Another one asked about the possibility of inquiring only with the international students but the Studentenraad stated that it is forbidden by the Flemish government to have a representation for international students different to the one of the Belgian students.
In conclusion, students should recur to their local student associations to complain about the tuition fees; this was not so well accepted among some students that consider that that education be free and equally accessible for everyone is an evident principle that does not require such movement to justify its defence. Yet many students were happy to hear at least that the Studentenraad was willing to fight against the tuition fees, even in the streets, if the students are against it.
They said that more international assemblies were planned, as well as some changes to make the participation of international students in the politics of the university easier, particularly the translation of their websites into English. They also mentioned that perhaps they will organise some events regarding the issue of the tuition fees, to better inform the students in general about it.
They invited all the students to attend the open student meetings and to communicate their complains to them and to their local student associations.