A complaint from the European Commission that universities in French-speaking Belgium discriminate against foreign students will be formally rejected by the Belgian Government this week. Furthermore, Marie-Dominique Simonet, Belgium's Higher Education Minister, has moved to strengthen the system about which the Commission is complaining.
For the 2006-07 academic year, the French community government imposed a 30 per cent cap on the number of foreign students enrolling on some undergraduate courses, including veterinary medicine and physiotherapy.
Recently, as many as 80 per cent of the places on these courses and others linked to medicine were filled by French students who have failed to meet the strict access requirements at home. The Belgian Government argues that this puts undue strain on universities and colleges and undermines its domestic goals in educating medical professionals.
The cap, which cut the number of non-resident students by half, redresses the balance while still allowing in a substantial number of foreign students.
In January, the Commission complained that the system discriminated against European Union nationals not residing in Belgium and said the Government had not justified the quota. The Government has until March 24 to respond.
Ms Simonet argues that this is simply the beginning of a process that will allow the Government to show that its system is not discriminatory. She is ready to resort to legal avenues. "It is not for the Commission but for the European Court of Justice to say if the 30 per cent limit is against European law," she said. In 2005, the court found that a broader limit in Austria was disproportionate rather than unjustified.
The cap has already been unsuccessfully challenged in Belgian courts, and Ms Simonet has proposed measures to close a loophole whereby residency can be earned by working for six months in Belgium. She plans to extend the requirement to 15 months.