A beaming mayor Philippe Close, alongside city councillor and VUB alumna Anaïs Maes, once again emphasised Brussels’ bonds with the two free universities. They were speaking at the annual joint Saint-Verhaegen gathering in the city hall’s Gothic Hall, where the dual theme was student mental health and the extremism of our times.
The Gothic Hall was the venue for the very first meeting of the governors of ULB, the university founded in 1834 by Théodore Verhaegen, free from church and state. Anaïs Maes wished the students both rationality and idiosyncrasy, while Grand Master of the Great Orient of Belgium Alain Cornet reiterated that free enquiry is not a dogma or a religion, but a method. A method that is always subject to doubt.
Hate and extremism
At the heart of many of the day’s speeches was the observation that hatred and extremism are again all around us. “Saint V is also about democratic vigilance,” said ULB rector Annemie Schaus. VUB rector Jan Danckaert added that “just because we are a long way from the Middle East, that doesn’t mean we don’t have to make choices. We are unequivocally siding with international law. We choose the path of international and humanitarian law.”
According to Danckaert, Europe must help to find a solution for the conflict that has been going on for 75 years. “And this solution must never be terror, or hostage-taking, or occupation, or colonisation.”
This month, alongside the Hannah Arendt Institute, VUB called for a ceasefire in Gaza, and for mutual understanding, “because we feel the impact of the conflict here on our campuses”. According to the VUB rector, free thinking means “being free to embrace multiple perspectives. Free to take nothing for granted. Free to learn from others and build connections. Free to choose more humanity.”
Jan Danckaert also dug deeper into the students’ slogan for St V: “‘Hang in there,’, that’s fine – funding us is better”. “We are well aware that financial and other concerns have an impact on our students’ lives, on your mental health and therefore on study results.”
He stressed that VUB is doing what it can, but first and foremost it is the government that needs to step in. “Make sure more that money goes to higher education and to students in difficult situations. So there is more freedom here. So more young people are free to study. Free to follow their own path, without financial or other concerns.”
There was also a lot of focus on mental wellbeing in the speeches of the Oudstudentenbond alumni association, the Vrij Onderzoek student circle, and the BSG student union. Perseverance alone is not enough to ensure success, they said. Circumstances matter. Especially when mental wellbeing is still affected by the consequences of the pandemic, topped off by the precarious financial situation in which many students find themselves.
BSG president Pili Verbinnen pointed out that the very first St V procession in 1888 was a protest, not a party. Against the undemocratic policies of their own university. Today, there’s a new protest. Against the cuts affecting students’ mental wellbeing. “We must not go back to the days when university was only for the elite,” she said.