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Higher education is getting more international by the year, as is academic research. For VUB, located in the heart of Europe, this constitutes a huge growth opportunity. The question is: where is the university to house the rising tide of international students and researchers? As it turns out, that might be just across from its main campus. Barracks, that untill recently were occupied by the Belgian national police service, are in the process of being abandoned. Is a new International University Quarter in the making in Brussels, similar to the famous ‘Cité Internationale d’étudiants’ of Paris? VUB and its sister university ULB are certainly pitching for it.
Since this academic year, Paul De Knop has a new job. After having served the maximum term of 8 years as rector of VUB, he now oversees the large infrastructural works of the university. It is a logical step for a man who has been – and still is – the driving force behind some of the largest building projects the university has ever seen. Under his mandate, a hotel and place for seminars, workshops and receptions called ‘U-Residence’ was erected on the premises of the VUB campus. A few hundred metres further on, new housing for students is being built, along with new classrooms and meeting rooms and a large so-called ‘culture tower’. Next to it, workers are busy renovating the swimming pool. But one of his most formidable challenges is certainly the Barracks Project: the transformation of the now abandoned headquarters of the national police services into a student quarter measuring some 44,000 square metres.
The idea is not exactly new. VUB and ULB have both seen their national and international student numbers rise in the last years. Student housing however, does not keep pace. According to the latest numbers, there is a shortage of 1.800 student flats to house all the students wishing to stay close to the university rather than commute back and forth each day. The transformation of the Barracks into a student quarter - together with student housing now being built on campus – would cater to that demand. In the current plan, the site would provide additional housing for 800 students – for a large part coming from other countries.
There is more to the Barracks Project than just student housing, however. The site would house apartments for the general public as well and provide space for a restaurant, a children’s day-care centre, a cinema and a hall for parties and cultural events. Spin-off companies would also find a home on the premises. As such, the project would liven up the neighbourhood and provide an impetus for a new urban centre, bursting with life and economic activities.
It is a bold vision, but one that is increasingly catching on with the authorities. The trigger seems to have been a colloquium in 2014 about Brussels as the largest student city of Belgium. During that event politicians and decision-makers discovered – perhaps for the first time – the positive impact of students on the European capital. It was an eye-opening study of the Brussels Studies Institutes that did the trick, showing for example that students studying in Brussels were more likely to stay in the city after their student years and thereby contributing to its future prosperity. A year later, in May 2015, was announced that the European Union and the Brussels Authorities had set aside 1,3 million euros for the realisation of the Barracks Project.
There are still quite some hurdles to take before the project gets a final go ahead. In the meantime, the Brussels University Alliance (BUA, a partnership between VUB and ULB), keeps on pushing it forward with workshops to discuss the different aspects. Both universities use the project as study assignments in their architecture or sociology departments, for example.