50 years in the past, the primary college students from UC Louvain got here to Louvain-la-Neuve

October 20, 1972 marked a new page in the history of higher education: the French-language department of the Catholic University of Louvain (since called UCLouvain) held its first academic year in Louvain-la-Neuve, a newly founded town. An upheaval in the higher education landscape, even if the institution has preserved “its history and its expertise”, emphasizes historian Françoise Hiraux, who worked in the archives service at UC Louvain.

“1972 actually marks the continuation of the University of Louvain Hiraux, founded in 1425. “But as with all centuries-old institutions, the legal forms have also changed.”

The year 1968 thus marked a profound turning point in the history of the university. That year, Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens announced in the June 24 government statement that the French-speaking department of the Catholic University of Louvain would be relocated as soon as possible.

Walen Buiten

A decision taken after the famous “Walen Buiten”, those actions launched by Flemish students with the support of their teachers to demand the split of the Catholic university and the withdrawal of the French-speaking wing. But also because of the Languages ​​Acts of 1962 and 1963, which “divide Belgium into monolingual regions and a bilingual one, Brussels. This means that administration, the judiciary and also education are only carried out in the language of the region,” explains Ms. Hiraux. In Brussels, this also marks the separation between the French-speaking Free University of Brussels (ULB) on the one hand and the Dutch-speaking Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) on the other.

    Arrival of the procession at the Saint-Rémy church in Ottignies, where a Eucharistic celebration was celebrated on the occasion of the first academic year in Walloon Brabant.
Arrival of the procession at the Saint-Rémy church in Ottignies, where a Eucharistic celebration was celebrated on the occasion of the first academic year in Walloon Brabant. © UCLouvain Archives

‘In 1962 and 1963 the fate of the University of Louvain was held a little in limbo by saying that these laws would not necessarily apply to universities, which some Flemish politicians saw as an anomaly. Tensions rose until the 1968 clash and the decision to split the university and move the French-speaking wing.

High spirits, worries and tensions

Once the decision has been made, “everything remains to be done” to create the town of Louvain-la-Neuve in Walloon Brabant in Ottignies. “It was a big challenge to pass the expropriation laws, find financing and create not only a campus but also a city,” emphasizes Françoise Hiraux. “Between 1968 and 1972 there were four exciting but also worrying and tense years. Returning to school in 1972 was a ‘phew’ of relief: that was it, the transfer was launched,” says the historian. The medical faculty is relocated to Brussels “because the Brussels region needed university hospitals”.

At the beginning of the 1972 school year, not all students arrived in Louvain-la-Neuve. We have to wait until 1979 for the transfer of all faculties to be completed.

The first: the engineers

The first to inaugurate the new campus are 4th and 5th year engineers, 3rd and 4th year physicists and their PhD students. “Louvain-la-Neuve was still tiny, the first students and their teachers were wading through the mud. You had to put on boots to walk between the feces and the campus,” explains Ms. Hiraux.

That arrival on a new campus, in new premises, was, according to the historian, “a great catalyst for innovation, imagination, creativity, and the 1970s were conducive to that.” Fifteen days into the school year, the engineering students pulled off a major coup: they unsealed a KUL sidewalk and took it in a relay race to Louvain-la-Neuve, where they installed it on the Place Sainte-Barbe. Student folklore was already picking up steam again,” Ms Hiraux said. Three years later, the 24 Hours of Cycling was created, “a way of saying ‘We’re not dead, Louvain-la-Neuve is an opportunity,'” she believes.

The move to Louvain-la-Neuve also takes place in the context of the post-student revolution and the provision of new premises and the hiring of a certain number of new teachers have made it possible to develop the training. “It’s not just descriptive anymore. We’re putting the emphasis on seminars, practical work… It’s also a revolution in the atmosphere in the audience, where everyone has the floor,” explains Françoise Hiraux. At Leuven, premises were too cramped to accommodate a rapidly growing student population, “hindering educational innovation”.

Over 30,000 students

UCLouvain is also becoming “an international reference from a scientific point of view, because we finally have suitable spaces for research that give free rein to the imagination”, emphasizes Ms Hiraux again.

“We feel all of this in the first year of study: We value quality of life and encounters… We are committed to not just being a functional campus,” enthuses the historian.

Fifty years later, UCLouvain is spread over seven campuses and has more than 30,000 students. It should also write a new page in its history through the merger with the Université Saint-Louis Bruxelles, recently approved by the government of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation.

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