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History of KU Leuven

We take a glimpse at the past…

Situated in the heart of Western Europe, KU Leuven has been a centre of learning for almost six centuries. Founded in 1425 by Pope Martin V, KU Leuven bears the double honour of being the oldest extant Catholic university in the world and the oldest university in the Low Countries.

In its early days, our university was modelled on the universities of Paris, Cologne, and Vienna. In a short time, it grew into one of the largest and most renowned universities in Europe. Its academic fame attracted numerous scholars who made valuable contributions to European culture. In the sixteenth century the humanist Desiderius Erasmus lectured here, where he founded the Collegium Trilingue in 1517 for the study of Hebrew, Latin, and Greek - the first of its kind. The tutor of the young emperor Charles V, Adriaan Cardinal Florensz of Utrecht, was a professor here before being elected in 1522 as the last non-Italian Pope before Pope John Paul II. The philologist, legal scholar, and historian Justus Lipsius taught here for many years.

The mathematician Gemma Frisius helped to lay the foundations of modern science and tutored many famous scientists, including the cartographer Gerard Mercator, whose map projection is still in use, the botanist Rembert Dodoens, and the father of modern anatomy, Andreas Vesalius. In a later period, the theses of the Leuven theologian Cornelius Jansenius provoked a large and heated controversy both inside and outside the Church. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, KU Leuven was an important training centre for Roman Catholic intellectuals from Protestant countries. At the end of the Age of Enlightenment, in 1783, the chemist Pieter Jan Minckelers discovered the suitability of coal gas for lighting. In the nineteenth century, at the instigation of Pope Leo XIII, KU Leuven became an important centre of Thomist philosophy.

ErasmusNot all has been trouble-free, though, in the university's illustrious history. It has had its share of difficulties during the various social and political upheavals in this region from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. More recently, the two World Wars of the twentieth century deeply scarred the university. In 1914, the University Hall with its precious library was set in flames by German troops and 300,000 books were reduced to ashes. Afterwards, an international solidarity campaign with a major American contribution helped construct a new library on the present Ladeuzeplein. Unfortunately, this library was burned down in 1940 during the Second World War and this time only 15,000 of its 900,000 volumes were saved. Since then, the university library, and in fact the entire university, has undergone a thorough reconstruction.

The university is located in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium. With the Dutch language's steady rise to renewed prominence, 1968 saw the university split into two new universities. The French-speaking Université Catholique de Louvain moved to the newly built campus in Louvain-la-Neuve. The Dutch-speaking Katholieke Universiteit Leuven remained in the historic town of Leuven.

...to understand the present and face the future

Such a rich history of nearly six hundred years has provided KU Leuven with its own dynamic international dimension. Today, international co-operation is regarded as essential for a modern university. Top-level research is judged according to international standards and implies interaction, co-operation, and exchange, both of researchers and results. As such, KU Leuven is a charter member of the League of European Research Universities, and European surveys rank KU Leuven among the top ten European universities in terms of its scholarly output. Likewise with regard to teaching, several quality surveys demonstrate that KU Leuven stands on par with internationally respected institutions in a large number of fields.

This academic reputation attracts students from all over the world. KU Leuven has been involved in the Erasmus student exchange programme since its launch in Europe in the late 1980s; the growing success of the Erasmus programme later on led to the launch of the Socrates programme, and today the University of Leuven has over 300 contracts under this programme. Each year around 600 international Erasmus students spend part of their study programme in Leuven, while more than 500 of our students share the same European experience at another university. The TEMPUS-PHARE programme was set up for students and researchers from Eastern Europe, while contacts with universities in the former Soviet Union are being built up through the TEMPUS-TACIS programme. The co-operation with universities in Latin America falls within the scope of the ALFA programme.

Besides these exchange programmes, the university has set up a number of international academic programmes aimed both at Belgian and international students. Unlike the regular Dutch-language programmes, the international academic programmes are taught in English. Most of these programmes confer master’s degrees: full bachelor’s degree programmes in English are offered only in the fields of theology and philosophy.

At present, KU Leuven caters to more than 31,000 students, around 12% of whom are international students from more than 120 nations. In terms of its personnel, there are 5,287 academic staff, 2,730 administrative and technical staff, and 8,172 university hospital staff members. With regard to its physical facilities, the university occupies a total area of 1,058,445 square metres and it has a total of 26,606 rooms. On the academic side, the university is composed of fourteen faculties, fifty departments and about 240 sub-departments. Further, its network of thirty auxiliary libraries now houses a total of 4.3 million volumes, 14,500 magazines and journals, and 7,492 full text electronic magazines. And concerning its medical facilities, KU Leuven supports five hospitals and three affiliated hospitals, with a total of 2,057 hospital beds for the acutely ill.

Hopefully, this has given you a more vivid picture of KU Leuven. KU Leuven's rich history can be read not only from the city's street names, but also from the dozens of historical university buildings. The medieval cloth hall, near the famous gothic town hall, is the university's administrative centre. The beautifully restored Great Beguinage houses students and guest professors. And numerous other old colleges and residence halls give Leuven the stylish face of a university town with a tradition. Where else can you find a university within a town, and indeed a 'town' within a university, so dynamically integrated? Its rich historical tradition continues to serve as a solid foundation for top-level research and centres of academic excellence. To this day, KU Leuven thrives as a bustling student town with a strong international allure, where various cultures meet and experiences are exchanged.