History of the Flemish Union of Students (VVS)
From uniting all Dutch-speaking university students in Belgium in 1938, to representing all students at colleges and universities in the Flemish Community.
In 1938, VVS stood for Vereniging der Vlaamse Studenten, which later became the Union of Flemish Students. In time, this umbrella organisation had all Dutch-speaking (Flemish) students in Belgium as members. This membership was automatic; however, students could unsubscribe. Representation was through four and later, with the colleges added, through five centres: the local student umbrella organisations. So this meant that all Flemish students were members but had no direct say.
With the radical left tendency within VVS, that automatic membership was questioned from 1970 onwards. From automatic membership, VVS evolved into an exclusively individual student representation in 1977. This undermined VVS’s clout for more than 16 years and resulted in a serious democratic deficit due to the lack of a full-fledged policy body and negotiator for the students in Flanders.
In 1993, the remaining student councils joined forces again and made VVS an exclusive umbrella organisation of local student councils. After six years of full-fledged operation at Flemish level and in all higher education environments, this resulted in the official recognition of VVS as the Flemish student umbrella organisation in 1999. First, the Flemish government announced by decree that it wanted to recognise student and pupil umbrella organisations as official advisory bodies. This decree was tailor-made for VVS and VVS was recognised as such.
To complete VVS’s new élan, a new house style was introduced and in 2000 VVS was renamed the ‘Flemish Union of Students’.
Representation or vanguard: The Association of Flemish Students, 1938-1977
A student umbrella organisation has two central functions: on the one hand, to represent its supporters vis-à-vis the academic and political authorities and vis-à-vis other sections of society; on the other hand, to support and coordinate, often also engage and lead students in joint (protest) actions. At the Association of Flemish Students (VVS), the representative representative of all Dutch-speaking students in Belgium, the difficult balance between these two functions was broken during the 1960s. The VVS leadership allowed Flemish radical – and gradually more and more social – commitment to prevail. That social commitment led, after the student protest, to the break-up of VVS. After all, the social commitment and the resulting politicisation of the association were pernicious for its representative function and eventually resulted in the disappearance of VVS as a student umbrella organisation. This article will examine how and why this evolution from representative umbrella organisation to leftist vanguard organisation was able to take place.
The difficult 1980s
The early 1980s are a big black hole for VVS, both in the memory of student generations and in the archives. VVS had narrowed down to an association of – mainly Ghent – progressive students that distinguished itself from political student associations only by its syndicalist concept.
Under the initiative of the Leuven General Student Council, the Flemish Student Federation (VSF) started its operations in April 1983. VSF gained a foothold in the universities of Antwerp, Diepenbeek and Leuven while VVS was mainly active in Ghent and Brussels. Within VVS, this quickly taught that VVS had to go back to being one ‘big’ and representative organisation. All other forms of operation had by no means improved the representation situation of the students. In 1986, the bankruptcy of all other types of student representation was harshly demonstrated. The St Ann’s Plan of the Minister of Education Daniel Coens, still regarded with disdain by student representatives, increased enrolment fees heavily and cut hard and deeply the funds that were supposed to promote the democratisation of education. Some universities saw their social grants cut by half or more (half in Leuven and up to 60% at the Antwerp institutions). Student protest happened in staggered order of battle (VVS, VSF and a National Action Committee). VVS at the time succeeded little to no in getting students to pull a zeal. (In fact, the high point of the student protest was the occupation of Minister Coens’ cabinet.) Moreover, students were simultaneously weakened by a lingering numerus clausus debate and faced creeping cuts in scholarships throughout the 1980s as they were only sporadically indexed. Despite all this, Flemish students failed to return to prominence with one genuine umbrella organisation.
A large movement of student representatives worked towards a new VVS, the OVVS as it can be found in the archives: the Umbrella Association of Flemish Students. In January 1988, the time had come: a statute reform turned VVS into an apolitical, purely interest-promoting umbrella organisation that, on paper, should be able to represent all Flemish students, without any coloured political commitment. The umbrella system was copied from British and Scandinavian national umbrellas: local student umbrellas (now called student councils) could become associate members of VVS. In addition, the system of individual membership remained. For BEF 50, you were a VVS member as an individual.
After protracted negotiations – after all, there was initially suspicion, especially in the VSF cities of Leuven and Antwerp, about the intentions of the VVS, which was known as far-left – most of the local student councils of the Flemish universities and colleges would soon join this new depoliticised VVS.
The Resurgence of the 1990’s
Due to its history, student councils were quite suspicious of VVS over the years. This manifested itself primarily in the formal functioning of VVS and in its statutes. An important difference in the functioning of VVS from its past was the rationale behind working with a non-profit organisation structure. In 1959, it was still mainly legal reasons for transforming VVS into a non-profit organisation. In itself, that vzw structure had little effect on VVS neither in structure nor in operation. In fact, the real functioning of VVS was outside the formal vzw structure. However, that had now changed significantly. Still, the functioning and structure of VVS was strictly in accordance with the vzw legislation. Furthermore, there were a number of things in the statutes that clearly indicated the student councils’ distrust of the VVS leadership. So in the formal non-profit organisation structure, that VVS leadership was the Board of Directors. The powers, for example, could be read as a list of duties in which rights were totally absent.
In March 1992, VVS split due to tensions between the representatives of university students and college students. The university students of UIA, RUCA, UFSIA, KUB, RUG and KUL then founded the Flemish University Students (VlUS). But new plans to introduce a numerus clausus necessitated cooperation between VVS and VlUS and led to the dissolution of VlUS and a regrouping of the student councils in VVS in April 1993. In 1994, VVS underwent another major transformation. The statutes delete VVS as a Student Trade Union Movement. However, this does not mean that individual membership alongside associate membership is abolished. Furthermore, VVS adopts a more top-down stance as VVS branches can be established locally. But the two most far-reaching changes had to do with the board mandates and the centrals. Firstly, Article 8§4 stated that a national board position within VVS cannot be combined with a mandate with an official political party or its youth organisation. This was due to its politically leftist past and the fact that within the VVS operation of the previous year, a spokesperson came from the VLD youth. VVS was soon labelled “Formerly red, now blue” and, according to chairman Jorn De Cock (1993-1994), quickly wanted to get rid of it. Secondly, the plants were given an upgrade. Within VVS, it had been shown that the three power plants (higher education short-term (HOKT), higher education long-term (HOLT) and UNIEF) could really be at each other’s throats and even flatten VVS. To prevent this, the full subsidiarity principle was introduced. This happened not only because of problems with positions but also since only the central organisations and thus not the student councils sent delegates to the National General Assembly. This allowed centrals to pursue their own policies (also externally) and gave them each a member in the Governing Council and also had veto power in the NAV. This shows that VVS had now also become an umbrella organisation of college students and this was reflected in its activities. Social allowances (which were non-existent at colleges in the 1980s) for all students constituted just about the most important demand of VVS in the early 1990s. In 1992, regional networks could finally count on BEF 3000 per student if they really worked together and if they added BEF 1000 per student. Moreover, in 1993, preparations followed for a comprehensive, college decree based on the 1991 university decree. VVS opposed the poorly substantiated (educational) content, the envelope funding and the limited definition of the student council. Otherwise, VVS also saw an opportunity here. The number of colleges that had grown exponentially since the 1960s to the level of 167 would be reduced to 29. Strong local student councils should result from this and, moreover, VVS should be able to reach those student councils more easily.
To facilitate this, VVS started the Tour of Flanders. This involved the president and the presidents of the HOLT and HOKT unions visiting all the student umbrella organisations at colleges of higher education in Flanders to persuade them to join VVS and inform them about current issues in college education.
The most ingenious idea of the 1990s, however, came from VVS’s penultimate second-in-command.Indeed, Alex Polfliet thought it was time for VVS to ensure that schoolchildren could also count on their own Flemish umbrella organisation.When the numerus clausus debate erupted in all its intensity back in 1996, the VVS people soon realised that it was difficult to mobilise the pupils, let alone reach them.Within VVS, people began to toy with the idea of setting up a second VVS that would initially operate within VVS.VVS would then stand there for Vlaamse Vereniging van Scholieren.Eventually, at the end of 1997, it became Vlaamse Scholierenkoepel, which organised its first scholars’ congress in November 1998 with the help of VVS.From 1 January 2000, VSK became completely independent of VVS financially and organisationally and took its first steps without being mothered by VVS.
Meanwhile, VVS found a new breath at the end of 1999, beginning of 2000.The student councils got back highly motivated to make VVS their sole mouthpiece and VVS got the chance to position itself as such.The various actors began to place VVS on a par with Vlir and Vlhora.This was mainly, but not only, due to the recognition of VVS by the Education Department of the Ministry of the Flemish Community and the associated monetary support. VVS was finally able to leave the system of seconded staff behind and let staff members do the policy preparation.Moreover, the first two staff members, Axel Aerden and Pieterjan Van Broeckhoven, had been active in the student movement for years.Especially the latter made VVS back the hub for info and expertise for the student councils.
New millennium, new VVS: a new beginning
Throughout the 20th century, VVS’s full name was ‘Association of Flemish Students’. In December 2000, the statutes of the non-profit organisation were amended and immediately the name was changed to ‘Flemish Association of Students’. This was something that had been dormant in VVS for some time. Local student representatives had previously commented on that outdated name. The historical meaning was still understood but meanwhile VVS did not only defend Flemish students in Belgium. VVS now also defends French-speaking and foreign students studying in Flanders, and within Belgium VVS is the Flemish umbrella organisation.
Presidents from 1973 to 2016
- 2015-2016: Jonathan Hooft
- 2014-2015: Bram Roelant
- 2013-2014: Bram Roelant
- 2012-2013: Anke Van den Bergh
- 2011-2012: Michiel Horsten
- 2010-2011: Tom De Meyer
- 2009-2010: Julie De Fraeye
- 2008-2009: Gertie De Fraeye; Klaas Keirse (maart – augustus)
- 2007-2008: Ward Poelmans
- 2006-2007: Hans Plancke
- 2005-2006: Jan Fabry
- 2004-2005: Ton van Weel, Jr.
- 2003-2004: Joris Roos
- 2002-2003: Joris Roos
- 2001-2002: Veronique Volders
- 2000-2001: Rob Tilmans
- 1995-1996 Jan Fransen
- 1994-1995 Toon Van Agt
- 1993-1994 Jorn De Cock
- 1987-1988 Luc Van Overberghe
- 1986-1987 Glenn Rayp
- 1985-1986 Stefan Meeus
- 1984-1985 Geert Mareels
- 1983-1985 Geert Mareels
- 1982-1983 Johan Dhondt
- 1981-1982 Philippe Bergez
- 1980-1981 Pat Eggermont
- 1979-1980 André Rubbens
- 1978-1979 Stef Debusschere
- 1977-1978 Jo Algoed
- 1976-1977 Johan Van Hecke
- 1975-1976 Tuur Devens
- 1974-1975 Luc Lever
- 1973-1974 Louis Van Dievel