The university's name is sometimes abbreviated by "VUB" or translated to "Free University of Brussels". However, it is an official policy of the university not to use abbreviations or translations of its name, because of possible confusion with another university that has the same translated name: the French-speaking Université Libre de Bruxelles.
In fact, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel was formed by the splitting in 1970 of the same Université Libre de Bruxelles, which was founded in 1834 by the Flemish-Brussels lawyer Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen. He wanted to establish a university independent from state and church, where academic freedom would be prevalent. This is today still reflected in the university's motto Scientia vincere tenebras, or Conquering darkness by science, and in its more recent slogan Redelijk eigenzinnig , or Reasonably opiniated. Accordingly, the university is pluralistic — it is open to all students on the basis of equality regardless of their ideological, political, cultural or social background — and it is managed using democratic structures, which means that all members — from students to faculty — participate in the decision-making processes.
The university is organised into 8 faculties that accomplish the three central missions of the university: education, research, and service to the community. The faculties cover a broad range of fields of knowledge including the natural sciences, classics, life sciences, social sciences, humanities, and engineering. The university provides bachelor, master, and doctoral education to about 8,000 undergraduate and 1,000 graduate students. It is also a strongly research-oriented institute, which has led to its top-133 position among universities worldwide. Its research articles are on average more cited than articles by any other Flemish university.
The main organisational structure of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel is its division into faculties:
These faculties benefit a wide autonomy over how they structure their educational programmes and research efforts, although their decisions need to comply with the university's statutes and must be approved by the central administration.
The central administration is formed by the Governing Board, which is currently presided by Eddy Van Gelder. It decides the university's long-term vision and must approve all decisions made by the faculties. The Governing Board is supported by three advising bodies: the Research Council, the Education Council, and the Senate. These bodies provide advice to the Governing Board on all issues regarding research, education, and the academic excellence of faculty staff, and may also propose changes to the university’s strategy. The daily management of the university is the responsibility of the Rector and three Vice-Rectors. The current Rector of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel is Benjamin Van Camp.
Admission to the programmes is generally not restricted; anyone can subscribe to the programme of his/her choice. However, prerequisite degrees may be mandatory for advanced programmes, e.g., a bachelor’s degree is required to subscribe to a master’s programme, and a master’s degree is required to subscribe to a master after master’s or doctoral programme. An exception to this is the admission exam to the bachelor in medicine, which is required following ruling of the Flemish government. Tuition fees are low, and even decreased or eliminated for some students with less financial means.
The academic year is divided into two semesters, each spanning thirteen course weeks: the first semester lasts from October to January, the second semester from February to June. Students take exams in January and June. Apart from the Christmas and Easter holidays (both lasting two weeks) that are normally used to prepare for the exams, students are free the week between both semesters and during the Summer holidays from July to September.
The university has implemented several quality control schemes in order to preserve the high quality of its educational programmes. Each semester, all students evaluate the courses they have followed. All programmes are also regularly assessed by internal panels and by external international visitation committees. Furthermore, all programmes are accredited by the Nederlands-Vlaamse Accreditatie Organisatie, an independent accreditation organisation charged with the accreditation of higher education programmes in both Flanders and the Netherlands.
In 1834, the Belgian episcopate decided to establish a Catholic university in Mechelen with the aim of regaining the influence of the Catholic Church on the academic scene in Belgium, and the Belgian government had the intent to close the state university at Leuven and donate the buildings to the Catholic institution. The liberals in Belgium strongly opposed to this decision, and furthered their ideas for a university in Brussels as a counterbalance to the Catholic institution. At the same time, Auguste Baron had just become a member of the freemasonic lodge "Les Amis Philantropes", as had a large number of other intellectuals with enlightened ideas. Baron was able to convince Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen, the president of the lodge, to support the idea for a new university. On June 24, 1834, Verhaegen presented his plan to establish a free university.
After sufficient funding was collected among advocates, the Université Libre de Bruxelles was inaugurated on November 20, 1834, in the Gothic room of the city hall of Brussels. After its establishment, the Université Libre de Bruxelles faced difficult times, since it did receive no subsidies or grants from the government; yearly fundraising events and tuition fees provided the only financial means. Verhaegen, who became a professor and later head of the new university, gave it a mission statement which he summarized in a speech to King Leopold I: the principle of free inquiry and academic freedom uninfluenced by any political or religious authority.
This principle is also reflected in the university's motto Scientia vincere tenebras, or Conquering darkness by science, and in its seal. The seal of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel displays a beggar's wallet and joined hands on the orange-white-blue (the colours of the Prince of Orange) escutcheon in the emblem, referring to the struggle of the Protestant Gueux and the Prince of Orange against the Spanish rule and the Inquisition in the sixteenth century.
Another basic principle of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel — also incorporated in the university's statutes — is that the institution must be managed according to the model of democracy. Practically, this means that all members of the academic community — faculty staff, researchers, personnel, and students — are represented in all governing bodies. In this way, the university ensures that everyone has a voice in its decision-making processes and participates in its management. This principles must also guarantee the independence of the university and the academic freedom.
Most of the faculties are located on the campus Etterbeek (which is actually located on the territory of the neighbouring borough of Elsene), it is the liveliest of the two campuses. The activities mainly take place in the numerous auditoriums and labs. In addition, there is a modern sports centre with various rooms for sporting activities, a football pitch encircled by a running track and an on-campus swimming pool. For eating out, there is not just the student restaurant, but also some snack bars ('t Complex, Opinio, Kultuurkaffee).
The campus in Jette is also a fully-fledged campus. The University Hospital (UZ Brussel) is in the vicinity. All medical courses and research, the so-called life sciences (medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, the biomedical and paramedical sciences) take place here.