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Fries and Fons Sapientiae - My Erasmus at KU Leuven

Hey fellow LLBers! I spent my semester abroad pretty close to home, at the KU Leuven in Belgium. You may be rolling your eyes and asking yourself, “is that really going abroad?”. Well, yes it is. Though Leuven is only 3 hours from Amsterdam, the culture shock is real.

My reasons for wanting to go to Belgium were twofold: firstly, I wanted to go to one of the best universities on the IESE list to challenge myself and polish my CV. Secondly, I wanted to reconnect with my roots, since I was born in Belgium and lived there for many years. Though you may not be able to relate to the second reason, if you are able to identify with the first then KU Leuven might be something for you!

The law faculty at KU Leuven

The city:

Leuven is a small city in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. In terms of size, it is comparable in scale to Groningen, and it is truly a student city as well. Belgians are true foodies at heart, and that is reflected in the city of Leuven. There are so many restaurants (and a lot of them are affordable too!). Here are some of my personal favorites:

  • Sticks and Bowls (poké bowls)

  • Chapter Four (mojitos and ribs – what else could you need?)

  • Nosh (delicious bagels)

  • Domus (traditional Belgian stews, made with their own home-brewed beer)

  • De Werf (simple dishes, popular among students)

  • Pinnochio (the best waffles in town)

  • Croque ‘n Roll (all sorts of grilled cheese, right next to the law faculty)

As you can see, I did quite a bit of eating. If you prefer taking your meals in liquid form, you’re in luck because Leuven is home to the Stella Artois brewery, which you can tour during the orientation week. It’s also Belgium, so there is beer galore. For a night out, head to the Oude Markt. Exchange students tend to flock to Ambiorix, but I’d personally recommend Café Belge – on Wednesday and Friday nights they have a guy DJing with his 60s, 70s and 80s playlist on Spotify, and it’s pretty great. At any rate, make sure you go on the ESN pubcrawl during orientation week to get a feel for the local bars, and enjoy the ESN parties!

Leuven has a neat bus system run by De Lijn, and you can buy a bus ticket that is valid for a whole year for only €20 at the Erasmus presentation during orientation week. Even if you don’t think you’ll need it, you should buy it anyway. You can also look into getting a Go Pass or a monthly pass at the station if you are interested in traveling around Belgium a bit more frequently. I got a month pass for Brussels and it was a lot cheaper than a single ticket in the Netherlands.

As to the lovely people of Leuven: it was frustratingly difficult to get to know them (even though I lived in a Belgian student house). Belgians are quite reserved, making it difficult to break into their friend groups. Once I faked a Belgian accent and made jokes about Dutch people they seemed to open up, but it is something to be aware of (especially if you are Dutch). Of course, not all Belgians are cold or hostile, but it can be difficult to get them to warm up to you.

On a last note about the city, I leave you with my absolute favorite hidden gem in Leuven: Barboek. This little bookshop sells delicious coffee and snacks, and has a beautiful collection of books which you can spend hours reading in their comfortable reading nooks. Make sure to check it out on a rainy day!

The view of the city from the top of the library.

Barboek, Leuven’s best bookstore.

Brussels has the very best fries, you can’t miss them!

The university and courses:

Most importantly: the university. Since all the courses are only worth between 4-6 ECTS, I had to take six courses, which was a really heavy workload. One thing that rang true for all these courses is that the organization of the VRG Cursusdienst (the readershop) leaves much to be desired. Seriously, I was still ordering readers in November because it took them that long to reach the shop. Then when they were printed and I could pick them up, they would give me 600 pages that were unbound, so I had to lug the documents to a copy shop and pay for them to be bound there.

If you are thinking about going to KU Leuven for exchange for the academics, take a good honest look at yourself, because the course load is not for the faint of heart. The courses I took were:

  • European Insurance Law: I would absolutely recommend this course. It was very well-taught, with clear lectures and materials, and a wonderful professor.

  • European Criminal Law: I would also recommend this course, even if you’re not interested in criminal law, simply because it is almost identical to the Criminal Law course you have to take in the first year of the LLB, so a lot of the cases are repeated. The professor is hilarious, and is one of the few with Powerpoints for his class.

  • International Business Law: I am hesitant to recommend this course. While the content is interesting, the lectures just consisted of the professor reading off 90 slides of articles. The information in this course is extremely dense and difficult to understand, and the exam is not an accurate reflection of what you learn in class.

  • Law of the WTO: I loved this course. The professor brought in a lot of legal practitioners from Brussels to help cover the lectures, and provided a lot of additional resources to make sure the students really understood the topics. I would whole-heartedly recommend this course to everyone going to Leuven. Moreover, I was lucky enough to be assigned a spot in the practical course (an extra course once a week for no credit and with no exam) on the role of the EU in the WTO, which was taught by someone who actually represents the EU at the WTO in Geneva. It was really inspiring, and I got to ask a lot of questions to an expert, which was really cool.

  • Discrimination Law: I enjoyed this course, although it should be mentioned that you have to do a Moot Court for this course (which takes a lot of time, and is worth zero extra points). It was a really interesting course and the professor teaches really well, though it requires a lot of preparation every week because you have to read a ton of cases for it.

  • Law and Religion: I have mixed emotions about this course. While it was interesting to learn more about the role of religion in law, the course was offered by the faculty of Canon Law, which sort of set the tone for the rest of the course (read: I was sitting between very dedicated seminary students).

The courses are all taught in 2-hour lectures (a full two hours, not like the two hours at RUG). While you might be pleasantly surprised at first that you only have 3 days of class per week, the courses require a lot of extra self-study. I made the mistake of starting my studying for exams around December, which is honestly already far too late. At the presentation for exchange students, the coordinator told us that Belgian students don’t take the Christmas vacation off, they just study. That is exactly what I had to do; I spent my New Years Eve summarizing case law, and it was no fun at all.

At the presentation, the coordinator also informed us that the average exam grade is 12/20, so around a 6. Resits are in September only (though if you fail a course, you can organize some extra credits with the international office at RUG), and the exams are very difficult. The professors do not attend the exams, though some pop in for 5 minutes halfway just to answer any questions, and then leave again. I can’t personally speak to the grading yet, since I’m still waiting on my exam results.

The old university library on Ladeuzeplein.

There is a crucifix in literally every room on campus.

The costs:

Last of all, what does it cost to spend half a year in Leuven? Overall, living in Leuven is quite expensive, more than I had expected it to be considering how low the Erasmus grant is. My guess is that the grant is calculated on the basis of the expenses of a Belgian student, which is not an adequate representation of your expenses as Erasmus student because Belgian students go home literally every single weekend and pick up a week’s supply of food and clean laundry.

Rent is pretty comparable to Groningen, though it depends on what sort of house you are in. I rented a room in a Belgian student house which was quite affordable, but the Belgian student houses are very basic and probably haven’t been updated since the late 90s. There is no Wifi in most houses (only Ethernet, which you can’t log into until the orientation week), and when I asked the Belgian students about washing machines they informed me that they personally knew no one in the entire city who had a washing machine in their house. So I spent quite a few hours at the laundromat, which wasn’t a huge deal but is something to take into consideration. The international student housing offered by the university is certainly nicer (with in-house washing machines, I hear), but also a lot more expensive.

Groceries cost me a lot of money every month, more than in Groningen. The exchange coordinators recommended Lidl and Colruyt to us, but I personally chose to go to Delhaize a lot more, which has prices comparable to Jumbo. However, meat is incredibly expensive in Belgium for some reason. Also important to note is the garbage-disposal system in Leuven: you have to buy 6 different types of trash bags, which cost you a kidney. If you don’t do it, you get fined. You can’t win either way. However, it does ensure that the entire city recycles and is extremely environmentally aware.

That covers my exchange in Belgium! If you’re interested in going to KU Leuven for your exchange, don’t hesitate to shoot me an e-mail.

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