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My Brussels: VUB rector Caroline Pauwels on the future of education in the capital

10:22 18/06/2019

Caroline Pauwels first set foot on Vrije Universiteit Brussel’s campus in Etterbeek as a student in the late 1980s. Now she’s in charge. After a PhD in communication sciences and after leading the university’s ICT research centre for 16 years, Pauwels won the election in 2016 to become rector.

“She brought the university closer to the people,” said the judges who awarded her the title of Brusselaar of the Year in 2017. Speaking with The Bulletin, Pauwels explains why education in Brussels needs to keep up with the reality of a multicultural capital.

What are your first memories of Brussels?

I grew up in Sint-Niklaas. I came to Brussels with my parents and it always felt like a faraway city. I was curious about it. I studied in Antwerp and then in Leuven, but I came to Brussels more and more often. I really felt the need to be in a larger city. Arriving in Brussels as a student at VUB was an opening up of my mind. It was not such an easy city to get a grip on. To some extent I was intrigued by the ugliness as well as the beauty.

Tell us about your personal journey

I was brought up to be curious, to have a willingness to know and to understand. I attended a good school where this curiosity was really enhanced. Humanism was something that was deeply rooted in my education. I was also raised with the love of the fact that Belgium had three languages. My grandfather and my parents told me that was exceptional – and that it was an advantage.

I trained as a philosopher first, then I studied communication sciences. My first work experience after university was as an intern in the European Commission. I had the privilege to be in the cabinet of commissioner Karel Van Miert, with a very demanding chef de cabinet and lots of opportunities as a young graduate. Working in a cabinet, with immediate access to where policy thinking goes on, was exceptional. I had this curiosity about the European project; I felt part of it.

Coming to work at VUB opened up my mind about chances and opportunities. I don’t like that in academia people are put into boxes, that an engineer would not take a literature or a music course. Even in secondary school you are put into those boxes – and I really think that you deny individuals’ potential.

How did you become rector of VUB?

I wasn’t thinking of becoming a rector. I was very much into research – I was leading a digital society department at VUB. I thought I was serving the university well and I was happy with what I was doing. A friend who I have a lot of regard for asked me whether I would consider it, and I promised I would. Christmas is always a moment of reflection for me and I thought it through and read a lot about the future of universities. I think the answer became clear.

After the holidays, I asked friends who had nothing to do with the university. And they said: of course, you need to apply, you’re always talking about VUB. That was something I hadn’t realised, that my heart lies with this university.

You’re keen to pursue more multilingual education. What are relations like with your French-speaking counterpart, ULB?

ULB and VUB never split in a violent way. It was just something that happened to us. We always worked very closely together. As rectors we get along very well and there were already strong links. There is a momentum now.

Tell us about your plan to create a multilingual secondary school in Brussels

There is an anachronism in the way we organise education in this multilingual city. People who are able to pay for an international school will send their children there, but you are excluding a large part of the people living in Brussels. You can never allow a city to become segregated. This will be an equaliser.

We just put the idea out in our memorandum and what surprised us when we came out with the project was that many people on both language sides stressed the need for this. There are legal barriers, that cannot be denied, but there are people willing to do this now. We have been studying multilingualism for decades at VUB and the evidence gets stronger and stronger that multilingualism has benefits, that you become more tolerant. We would study what happens in the project, which would help us push our research further.

If we say we care about this city, then we should talk about multilingualism. It is the reality of this city, and it is an opportunity, not a problem. More can be done in the monolingual schools themselves. If you go to the playground and people tell you not to speak Arabic or French, then you make language a problem, then people are scared of talking. That’s the wrong message.

What are your other challenges?

The B in VUB – Brussels – was something that in my opinion the university was not reflecting enough. We are a university of commuters. Our students and most of the personnel come from outside the city. The idea of having a university in a cosmopolitan city – with all the complexities that it entails – is for me the best context a university can have.

Brussels is this living lab for how we organise our educational project. It’s about showing the richness of Brussels to our students – it’s a place where many things happen, with lots of companies, political institutions, NGOs. We take them to workplaces they had not thought about when considering a job. It’s also about teaching them to network. You become stronger by knowing people and understanding their reasoning. Networking is not only about getting a job, it’s about showing an interest in others.

What’s next?

It’s true the work is not over. I can’t do it in one [four-year] term, that’s for sure. You need the first three years just to get to know the vastness and the complexity of the task. If you want to have a structural effect you need to go on for a long time. A university is a long-term project.

I think VUB is in good shape. Perhaps unlike other universities in Belgium, we have a very diverse student population. There are more students asking for information and showing an interest in coming. Everything is changing: our students, certification, what will be the best diplomas in the future. But there is something underneath that will never change: if we want a society to thrive, we need well-educated people who are willing to be critical and do research. That will never change.

What does Brussels mean to you?

As a humanist, you are always challenged. You see poverty, you see exclusion. Coming to Brussels made me understand that people are not born with equal chances. Even though they try, if they are not supported and mentored, it’s hard. That was a lesson I needed in life. Perhaps one reason why I stayed in a university environment is that you can make a difference.

I like Brussels more and more; I have this sense of belonging here. I was raised with curiosity about others and I feel more at ease, I feel richer as a person by being in a multidisciplinary, multilingual, multicultural environment.

Caroline’s best of Brussels

Theatre for me is a way to enter into life. When I first arrived in Brussels, people all recommended Théâtre 140, which was very avant-garde at the time. I got to meet lots of French-speaking people there. I think we are spoilt in Brussels, there is lots of good theatre. I now go more to the Flemish ones: KVS, Kaaitheater...

I live here and I like having the Sonian Forest just nearby. What’s really nice is that Brussels is one of the greenest European cities.

Le Psylophone
This is a place people go to in Boitsfort. It’s not haute cuisine but I like it because it’s authentic, it’s from the street.

Magritte Museum
I enjoy going to Jette. The Magritte Museum is in a small house. I think it’s very special that you can have big museums like Bozar and then this tiny little museum.

I once said that putting my children into Bozar would be a good school for them. It would be a good means to educate them, they would have music, theatre, literature... I go there a lot.

Au Vieux Saint-Martin
I remember this place on the Sablon from my first times coming to Brussels. I like the traditional Brussels brasserie atmosphere. I also like everything around Place Sainte Catherine.

This article first appeared in The Bulletin summer 2019. Photos: Lies Willaert/VUB

Written by Paul McNally



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