Flanders Today: “Mechelen start-up offers broader horizons for busy people”

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Click here to read this article on the Falnders Today website. 

by Bartosz Brzezinski,

Background Educations, set up by Caro Lemeire of Mechelen, provides fortnightly evening lectures on politics, literature, philosophy and more, as well as a series of talks by refugee academics

More than just an evening class

At university, Caro Lemeire majored in political science. Politics was what she lived for and the multiple degrees she obtained took her on a career path that eventually brought her to the Flemish research institute Vito. It was there, some years after her time as a student at the University of Leuven, that she realised she wanted to continue broadening her education. The only challenges were having a full-time job and little to no free time.

“I wanted to follow courses in philosophy and psychology, but the only ones I could find were evening lectures at universities,” says Lemeire (pictured), from Mechelen. “But it’s next to impossible to combine work with classes that are four or five nights a week, so I started reaching out to various education centres that I thought could organise something with a more flexible schedule. They were all very enthusiastic, but they didn’t have the time or resources to take on the initiative themselves.”

Instead of giving up, Lemeire took the matter into her own hands. “I contacted university lecturers to find out how much it would cost and started looking for locations to rent. In the end, I had a full curriculum that I really wanted to follow, and I knew that if I could only find enough people to share the cost, I could do it.”

That’s how Background Educations started in early 2014. It’s a programme intended for adults who want to keep studying but don’t have time for a complete university degree. Each semester comprises two-hour lectures held every couple of weeks and you can sign up for courses in literature, psychology and philosophy, as well as digital technologies and economics.

“You have a different lecturer every time, and every time it’s a different subtopic from the field,” Lemeire says. “Say you follow economics. You get one evening of microeconomics, one of macro, one of entrepreneurship, and so on. The idea is to provide you with information on a wide range of topics. The lecturers also give you a recommended reading list, so should you choose to do so, you can always research them in more depth on your own.”

For now, the courses are in Dutch and held in Mechelen, Antwerp and Ghent. In early 2016, Brussels will join the list with courses in English offered at Muntpunt library in the city centre.

Something positive for society

“The biggest challenge for us right now is to get more people involved,” Lemeire says. “It’s not that there isn’t any interest, because as soon as people find out about it, they react very enthusiastically. But it’s a new concept, one that isn’t easy to explain. I usually describe it as evening courses for adults, but then everyone looks at me and says, ‘But it’s so much more than that!’”

The lecturers have also responded positively. Professor Karl Verstrynge from the Free University of Brussels (VUB) gave a lecture on media ethics in Mechelen last year and will host another one in Brussels. He describes Background Educations as “a beautiful idea”.

“When you teach in front of adult students, you’re confronted with people who have a lot more intellectual maturity,” he says. “I had a very lively group and there were some fascinating comments in the discussion afterwards. People attending these courses have a motivation that is different from that of younger university students. They’re not doing it for a degree but out of sheer interest in the topic.”

Professor Gijs van Oenen from the Erasmus University Rotterdam echoes his words. “At the university, there is often a kind of jaded attitude among the students who are frequently focused on activities other than serious studying. Here the group wasn’t very large, but it was certainly interested and engaged.”

People aren’t doing it for a degree but out of sheer interest in the topic

– Karl Verstrynge

Initially, Lemeire did all the administrative work behind Background Educations on her own. This year, she took a break from working at Vito to focus on the project with the help of nine assistants.

“I’m not doing this to become rich,” she says. “I see education as the perfect way to do something positive for society, which is why in addition to our regular programme, we decided to organise lectures by academics who are refugees in Belgium.”

Rather than speak of their experiences as refugees, these lecturers share their research and expertise. Some have arrived in Belgium as recently as this summer.

“In the media, we always see them as poor people sitting in the park, but actually a lot of them are very well educated,” Lemeire says. “It’s important to show just how many of them used to be university professors because they are never shown for who they really are.”

The lectures from refugees are free to attend and are held in Brussels. “We wanted to put these men and women in the role of lecturers so that we could look up to them and learn from them. It’s really nice for them to know that people are actually interested in what they have to say.”